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Substance, Structure, Style, 
and the Principles of Screenwriting 



An Imprint of HarperCollinsPw blishers 

story. Copyright © 1997 by Robert McKee. All rights reserved. Printed in the 
United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any 
manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quota¬ 
tions embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information address Harper- 
Collins Publishers, Inc., 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022. 

HarperCollins books may be purchased for educational, business, or sales promo¬ 
tional use. For information please write: Special Markets Department, Harper¬ 
Collins Publishers, Inc., 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022. 


Designed by Laura Lindgren 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 
McKee, Robert, 1941- 

Story: substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting / 
Robert McKee, 
p. cm. 

Includes bibliographical references and index. 

ISBN: 0-06-039168-5 

1. Motion picture authorship. 2. Motion picture plays—Technique. I. Title. 
PN 1996.M465 1997 


97 98 99 00 01 */ RR D 10 987654321 



Acknowledgments / ix 
Notes on the Text / xi 

Introduction / 3 

1. The Story Problem / 11 


2. The Structure Spectrum / 31 

3. Structure and Setting / 67 

4. Structure and Genre / 79 

5. Structure and Character / 100 

6. Structure and Meaning / no 


7. The Substance of Story / 135 

8. The Inciting Incident / 181 

9. Act Design / 208 

10. Scene Design / 233 

11. Scene Analysis / 252 

12. Composition / 288 

13. Crisis, Climax, Resolution / 303 


14. The Principle of Antagonism / 317 

15. Exposition / 334 

16. Problems and Solutions / 346 

17. Character / 374 

18. The Text / 388 

19. A Writer’s Method / 410 
Fade Out / 418 

Suggested Readings / 421 
Filmography / 423 
Index / 457 


i nt 


Stories are equipment for living. 
— Kenneth Burke 


Story is about principles, not rules. 

A rule says, “You must do it this way .” A principle says, “This works 
. . . and has through all remembered time.” The difference is cru¬ 
cial. Your work needn't be modeled after the “well-made” play; 
rather, it must be well made within the principles that shape our art. 
Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled 
writers break rules. Artists master the form. 

Story is about eternal, universal forms, not formulas. 

All notions of paradigms and foolproof story models for commer¬ 
cial success are nonsense. Despite trends, remakes, and sequels, when 
we survey the totality of Hollywood film, we find an astounding variety 
of story designs, but no prototype. DIE HARD is no more typical of 
LEAVING LAS VEGAS, or thousands of other excellent films in 
dozens of genres and subgenres from farce to tragedy. 

Story urges the creation of works that will excite audiences on 
the six continents and live in revival for decades. No one needs yet 
another recipe book on how to reheat Hollywood leftovers. We 
need a rediscovery of the underlying tenets of our art, the guiding 
principles that liberate talent. No matter where a film is made— 
Hollywood, Paris, Hong Kong—if it’s of archetypal quality, it trig¬ 
gers a global and perpetual chain reaction of pleasure that carries it 
from cinema to cinema, generation to generation. 



Story is about archetypes, not stereotypes. 

The archetypal story unearths a universally human experience, 
then wraps itself inside a unique, culture-specific expression. A 
stereotypical story reverses this pattern: It suffers a poverty of both 
content and form. It confines itself to a narrow, culture-specific 
experience and dresses in stale, nonspecific generalities. 

For example, Spanish custom once dictated that daughters 
must be married off in order from oldest to youngest. Inside 
Spanish culture, a film about the nineteenth-century family of a 
strict patriarch, a powerless mother, an unmarriageable oldest 
daughter, and a long-suffering youngest daughter may move those 
who remember this practice, but outside Spanish culture audi¬ 
ences are unlikely to empathize. The writer, fearing his story's 
limited appeal, resorts to the familiar settings, characters, and 
actions that have pleased audiences in the past. The result? The 
world is even less interested in these cliches. 

On the other hand, this repressive custom could become mate¬ 
rial for a worldwide success if the artist were to roll up his sleeves 
and search for an archetype. An archetypal story creates settings 
and characters so rare that our eyes feast on every detail, while its 
telling illuminates conflicts so true to humankind that it journeys 
from culture to culture. 

In Laura Esquivel’s LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, mother 
and daughter clash over the demands of dependence versus inde¬ 
pendence, permanence versus change, self versus others—con¬ 
flicts every family knows. Yet Esquivel’s observation of home and 
society, of relationship and behavior is so rich in never-before-seen 
detail, we’re drawn irresistibly to these characters and fascinated by 
a realm we’ve never known, nor could imagine. 

Stereotypical stories stay at home, archetypal stories travel. 
From Charlie Chaplin to Ingmar Bergman, from Satyajit Ray to 
Woody Allen, the cinema’s master storytellers give us the double- 
edged encounter we crave. First, the discovery of a world we do not 
know. No matter how intimate or epic, contemporary or historical, 
concrete or fantasized, the world of an eminent artist always strikes 


us as somewhat exotic or strange. Like an explorer parting forest 
leaves, we step wide-eyed into an untouched society, a cliche-free 
zone where the ordinary becomes extraordinary. 

Second, once inside this alien world, we find ourselves. Deep 
within these characters and their conflicts we discover our own 
humanity. We go to the movies to enter a new, fascinating world, 
to inhabit vicariously another human being who at first seems so 
unlike us and yet at heart is like us, to live in a fictional reality that 
illuminates our daily reality. We do not wish to escape life but to 
find life, to use our minds in fresh, experimental ways, to flex our 
emotions, to enjoy, to learn, to add depth to our days. Story was 
written to foster films of archetypal power and beauty that will give 
the world this dual pleasure. 

Story is about thoroughness, not shortcuts. 

From inspiration to last draft you may need as much time to 
write a screenplay as to write a novel. Screen and prose writers 
create the same density of world, character, and story, but because 
screenplay pages have so much white on them, we're often mis¬ 
lead into thinking that a screenplay is quicker and easier than a 
novel. But while scribomaniacs fill pages as fast as they can type, 
film writers cut and cut again, ruthless in their desire to express 
the absolute maximum in the fewest possible words. Pascal once 
wrote a long, drawn-out letter to a friend, then apologized in the 
postscript that he didn’t have time to write a short one. Like 
Pascal, screenwriters learn that economy is key, that brevity takes 
time, that excellence means perseverance. 

Story is about the realities, not the mysteries of writing. 

There’s been no conspiracy to keep secret the truths of our art. 
In the twenty-three centuries since Aristotle wrote The Poetics, the 
“secrets” of story have been as public as the library down the street. 
Nothing in the craft of storytelling is abstruse. In fact, at first 
glance telling story for the screen looks deceptively easy. But 


moving closer and closer to the center, trying scene by scene to 
make the story work, the task becomes increasingly difficult, as we 
realize that on the screen there’s no place to hide. 

If a screenwriter fails to move us with the purity of a drama¬ 
tized scene, he cannot, like a novelist in authorial voice, or the play¬ 
wright in soliloquy, hide behind his words. He cannot smooth a 
coating of explanatory or emotive language over cracks in logic, 
blotchy motivation, or colorless emotion and simply tell us what to 
think or how to feel. 

The camera is the dread X-ray machine of all things false. It 
magnifies life many times over, then strips naked every weak or 
phony story turn, until in confusion and frustration we're tempted 
to quit. Yet, given determination and study, the puzzle yields. 
Screenwriting is full of wonders but no unsolvable mysteries. 

Story is about mastering the art, not second-guessing 

the marketplace. 

No one can teach what will sell, what won’t, what will be a 
smash or a fiasco, because no one knows. Hollywood’s bombs are 
made with the same commercial calculation as its hits, whereas 
darkish dramas that read like a checklist of everything moneyed 
wisdom says you must never do—ORDINARY PEOPLE, THE 
the domestic and international box office. Nothing in our art is 
guaranteed. That’s why so many agonize over “breaking in,” 
“making it," and “creative interference.” 

The honest, big-city answer to all these fears is that you’ll get 
an agent, sell your work, and see it realized faithfully on screen 
when you write with surpassing quality . . . and not until. If you 
knock out a knockoff of last summer’s hit, you’ll join the ranks of 
lesser talents who each year flood Hollywood with thousands of 
cliche-ridden stories. Rather than agonizing over the odds, put your 
energies into achieving excellence. If you show a brilliant, original 
screenplay to agents, they’ll fight for the right to represent you. The 
agent you hire will incite a bidding war among story-starved pro- 


ducers, and the winner will pay you an embarrassing amount of 

What’s more, once in production, your finished screenplay will 
meet with surprisingly little interference. No one can promise that 
unfortunate conjunctions of personalities won’t spoil good work, 
but be certain that Hollywood’s best acting and directing talents are 
acutely aware that their careers depend on working within quality 
writing. Yet because of Hollywood’s ravenous appetite for story, 
scripts are often picked before they’re ripe, forcing changes on the 
set. Secure writers don’t sell first drafts. They patiently rewrite until 
the script is as director-ready, as actor-ready as possible. Unfin¬ 
ished work invites tampering, while polished, mature work seals its 

Story is about respect, not disdain, for the audience. 

When talented people write badly it’s generally for one of two 
reasons: Either they’re blinded by an idea they feel compelled to 
prove or they’re driven by an emotion they must express. When tal¬ 
ented people write well, it is generally for this reason: They’re 
moved by a desire to touch the audience. 

Night after night, through years of performing and directing, 
I’ve stood in awe of the audience, of its capacity for response. As if 
by magic, masks fall away, faces become vulnerable, receptive. 
Filmgoers do not defend their emotions, rather they open to the 
storyteller in ways even their lovers never know, welcoming 
laughter, tears, terror, rage, compassion, passion, love, hate—the 
ritual often exhausts them. 

The audience is not only amazingly sensitive, but as it settles 
into a darkened theatre its collective IQ jumps twenty-five points. 
When you go to the movies, don’t you often feel you’re more intel¬ 
ligent than what you’re watching? That you know what characters 
are going to do before they do it? That you see the ending coming 
long before it arrives? The audience is not only smart, it’s smarter 
than most films, and that fact won’t change when you move to the 
other side of the screen. It’s all a writer can do, using every bit of 


craft he’s mastered, to keep ahead of the sharp perceptions of a 
focused audience. 

No film can be made to work without an understanding of the 
reactions and anticipations of the audience. You must shape your 
story in a way that both expresses your vision and satisfies the audi¬ 
ence's desires. The audience is a force as determining of story 
design as any other element. For without it, the creative act is 

Story is about originality, not duplication. 

Originality is the confluence of content and form—distinctive 
choices of subject plus a unique shaping of the telling. Content 
(setting, characters, ideas) and form (selection and arrangement of 
events) require, inspire, and mutually influence one another. With 
content in one hand and a mastery of form in the other, a writer 
sculpts story. As you rework a story's substance, the telling 
reshapes itself. As you play with a story’s shape, its intellectual and 
emotional spirit evolves. 

A story is not only what you have to say but how you say it. If 
content is cliche, the telling will be cliche. But if your vision is deep 
and original, your story design will be unique. Conversely, if the 
telling is conventional and predictable, it will demand stereotypical 
roles to act out well-worn behaviors. But if the story design is inno¬ 
vative, then settings, characters, and ideas must be equally fresh to 
fulfill it. We shape the telling to fit the substance, rework the sub¬ 
stance to support the design. 

Never, however, mistake eccentricity for originality. Difference 
for the sake of difference is as empty as slavishly following com¬ 
mercial imperatives. After working for months, perhaps years, to 
gather facts, memories, and imagination into a treasury of story 
material, no serious writer would cage his vision inside a formula, 
or trivialize it into avant-garde fragmentations. The “well-made” 
formula may choke a story’s voice, but “art movie” quirkiness will 
give it a speech impediment. Just as children break things for fun 
or throw tantrums to force attention on themselves, too many film- 


makers use infantile gimmicks on screen to shout, “Look what I 
can do!” A mature artist never calls attention to himself, and a wise 
artist never does anything merely because it breaks convention. 

Films by masters such as Horton Foote, Robert Altman, John 
Cassavetes, Preston Sturges, Francois Truffaut, and Ingmar 
Bergman are so idiosyncratic that a three-page synopsis identifies 
the artist as surely as his DNA. Great screenwriters are distin¬ 
guished by a personal storytelling style, a style that’s not only 
inseparable from their vision, but in a profound way is their 
vision. Their formal choices—number of protagonists, rhythm of 
progressions, levels of conflict, temporal arrangements, and the 
like—play with and against substantive choices of content—set¬ 
ting, character, idea—until all elements meld into a unique 

If, however, we were to put the content of their films aside for 
the moment, and study the pure patterning of their events, we’d 
see that, like a melody without a lyric, like a silhouette without a 
matrix, their story designs are powerfully charged with meaning. 
The storyteller’s selection and arrangement of events is his master 
metaphor for the interconnectedness of all the levels of reality— 
personal, political, environmental, spiritual. Stripped of its surface 
of characterization and location, story structure reveals his personal 
cosmology, his insight into the deepest patterns and motivations 
for how and why things happen in this world—his map of life’s 
hidden order. 

No matter who your heroes may be—Woody Allen, David 
Mamet, Quentin Tarantino, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Oliver Stone, 
William Goldman, Zhang Yimou, Nora Ephron, Spike Lee, Stanley 
Kubrick—you admire them because they’re unique. Each has 
stepped out of the crowd because each selects a content like no one 
else, designs a form like no one else, combining the two into a style 
unmistakably his own. I want the same for you. 

But my hope for you goes beyond competence and skill. I’m 
starved for great films. Over the last two decades I’ve seen good 
films and a few very good films, but rarely, rarely a film of stag¬ 
gering power and beauty. Maybe it’s me; maybe I’m jaded. But I 


don’t think so. Not yet. I still believe that art transforms life. But I 
know that if you can’t play all the instruments in the orchestra of 
story, no matter what music may be in your imagination, you’re 
condemned to hum the same old tune. I’ve written Story to 
empower your command of the craft, to free you to express an orig¬ 
inal vision of life, to lift your talent beyond convention to create 
films of distinctive substance, structure, and style. 




Imagine, in one global day, the pages of prose turned, plays per¬ 
formed, films screened, the unending stream of television comedy 
and drama, twenty-four-hour print and broadcast news, bedtime 
tales told to children, barroom bragging, back-fence Internet 
gossip, humankind’s insatiable appetite for stories. Story is not 
only our most prolific art form but rivals all activities—work, play, 
eating, exercise—for our waking hours. We tell and take in stories 
as much as we sleep—and even then we dream. Why? Why is so 
much of our life spent inside stories? Because as critic Kenneth 
Burke tells us, stories are equipment for living. 

Day after day we seek an answer to the ageless question Aris¬ 
totle posed in Ethics: How should a human being lead his life? But 
the answer eludes us, hiding behind a blur of racing hours as we 
struggle to fit our means to our dreams, fuse idea with passion, 
turn desire into reality. We're swept along on a risk-ridden shuttle 
through time. If we pull back to grasp pattern and meaning, life, 
like a Gestalt, does flips: first serious, then comic; static, frantic; 
meaningful, meaningless. Momentous world events are beyond 
our control while personal events, despite all effort to keep our 
hands on the wheel, more often than not control us. 

Traditionally humankind has sought the answer to Aristotle’s 
question from the four wisdoms—philosophy, science, religion, 
art—taking insight from each to bolt together a livable meaning. 



But today who reads Hegel or Kant without an exam to pass? Sci¬ 
ence, once the great explicator, garbles life with complexity and per¬ 
plexity. Who can listen without cynicism to economists, sociologists, 
politicians? Religion, for many, has become an empty ritual that 
masks hypocrisy. As our faith in traditional ideologies diminishes, 
we turn to the source we still believe in: the art of story. 

The world now consumes films, novels, theatre, and television 
in such quantities and with such ravenous hunger that the story 
arts have become humanity’s prime source of inspiration, as it 
seeks to order chaos and gain insight into life. Our appetite for 
story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the pat¬ 
terns of living, not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a 
very personal, emotional experience. In the words of playwright 
Jean Anouilh, “Fiction gives life its form.” 

Some see this craving for story as simple entertainment, an 
escape from life rather than an exploration of it. But what, after all, 
is entertainment? To be entertained is to be immersed in the cere¬ 
mony of story to an intellectually and emotionally satisfying end. 
To the film audience, entertainment is the ritual of sitting in the 
dark, concentrating on a screen in order to experience the story’s 
meaning and, with that insight, the arousal of strong, at times even 
painful emotions, and as the meaning deepens, to be carried to the 
ultimate satisfaction of those emotions. 

Whether it’s the triumph of crazed entrepreneurs over Hittite 
demons in GHOSTBUSTERS or the complex resolution of inner 
demons in SHINE: the integration of character in THE RED DESERT 
or its disintegration in THE CONVERSATION, all fine films, novels, 
and plays, through all shades of the comic and tragic, entertain when 
they give the audience a fresh model of life empowered with an affec¬ 
tive meaning. To retreat behind the notion that the audience simply 
wants to dump its troubles at the door and escape reality is a cowardly 
abandonment of the artist’s responsibility. Story isn’t a flight from 
reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best 
effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence. 

Yet, while the ever-expanding reach of the media now gives us 
the opportunity to send stories beyond borders and languages to hun- 


dreds of millions, the overall quality of storytelling is eroding. On 
occasion we read or see works of excellence, but for the most part we 
weary of searching newspaper ads, video shops, and TV listings for 
something of quality, of putting down novels half-read, of slipping 
out of plays at the intermission, of walking out of films soothing our 
disappointment with “But it was beautifully photographed . . ” The 
art of story is in decay, and as Aristotle observed twenty-three hun¬ 
dred years ago, when storytelling goes bad, the result is decadence. 

Flawed and false storytelling is forced to substitute spectacle for 
substance, trickery for truth. Weak stories, desperate to hold audi¬ 
ence attention, degenerate into multimillion-dollar razzle-dazzle 
demo reels. In Hollywood imagery becomes more and more extrav¬ 
agant, in Europe more and more decorative. The behavior of actors 
becomes more and more histrionic, more and more lewd, more 
and more violent. Music and sound effects become increasingly 
tumultuous. The total effect transudes into the grotesque. A culture 
cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling. When society 
repeatedly experiences glossy, hollowed-out, pseudo-stories, it degen¬ 
erates. We need true satires and tragedies, dramas and comedies that 
shine a clean light into the dingy comers of the human psyche and 
society. If not, as Yeats warned,"... the centre can not hold.” 

Each year, Hollywood produces and/or distributes four hun¬ 
dred to five hundred films, virtually a film per day. A few are excel¬ 
lent, but the majority are mediocre or worse. The temptation is to 
blame this glut of banality on the Babbitt-like figures who approve 
productions. But recall a moment from THE PLAYER: Tim Rob¬ 
bins’s young Hollywood executive explains that he has many ene¬ 
mies because each year his studio accepts over twenty thousand 
story submissions but only makes twelve films. This is accurate 
dialogue. The story departments of the major studios pore through 
thousands upon thousands of scripts, treatments, novels, and plays 
searching for a great screen story. Or, more likely, something 
halfway to good that they could develop to better-than-average. 

By the 1990s script development in Hollywood climbed to over 
$500 million per annum, three quarters of which is paid to writers 
for options and rewrites on films that will never be made. Despite a 


half-billion dollars and the exhaustive efforts of development per¬ 
sonnel, Hollywood cannot find better material than it produces. The 
hard-to-believe truth is that what we see on the screen each year is a 
reasonable reflection of the best writing of the last few years. 

Many screenwriters, however, cannot face this downtown fact 
and live in the exurbs of illusion, convinced that Hollywood is blind 
to their talent. With rare exceptions, unrecognized genius is a 
myth. First-rate screenplays are at least optioned if not made. For 
writers who can tell a quality story, it’s a seller’s market—always 
has been, always will be. Hollywood has a secure international 
business for hundreds of films each year, and they will be made. 
Most will open, run a few weeks, close, and be mercifully forgotten. 

Yet Hollywood not only survives, it thrives, because it has virtu¬ 
ally no competition. This wasn’t always the case. From the rise of 
Neo-realism to the high tide of the New Wave, North American cin¬ 
emas were crowded with works by brilliant Continental filmmakers 
that challenged Hollywood's dominance. But with the death or 
retirement of these masters, the last twenty-five years have seen a 
slow decay in the quality of European films. 

Today European filmmakers blame their failure to attract audi¬ 
ence on a conspiracy of distributors. Yet the films of their predeces¬ 
sors—Renoir, Bergman, Fellini, Bunuel, Wajda, Clouzot, Antonioni, 
Resnais—were screened throughout the world. The system hasn’t 
changed. The audience for non-Hollywood film is still vast and loyal. 
Distributors have the same motivation now they had then: money. 
What’s changed is that contemporary “auteurs” cannot tell story with 
the power of the previous generation. Like pretentious interior deco¬ 
rators, they make films that strike the eye, and nothing more. As a 
result, the storm of European genius has become a slough of arid 
films that leave a vacuum for Hollywood to fill. 

Asian works, however, now travel throughout North America 
and the world, moving and delighting millions, seizing the interna¬ 
tional spotlight with ease for one reason: Asian filmmakers tell 
superb stories. Rather than scapegoating distributors, non-Hollywood 
filmmakers would do well to look to the East, where artists have the 
passion to tell stories and the craft to tell them beautifully. 



The art of story is the dominant cultural force in the world, and the 
art of film is the dominant medium of this grand enterprise. The 
world audience is devoted but thirsting for story. Why? Not from a 
poverty of effort. The Writers Guild of America script registration 
service logs over thirty-five thousand titles yearly. These are only 
those that are registered. Across America hundreds of thousands of 
screenplays are attempted each year, but only a handful are quality 
screenplays, for many reasons but this above all: Today's would-be 
writers rush to the typewriter without first learning their craft. 

If your dream were to compose music, would you say to your¬ 
self: “I've heard a lot of symphonies ... I can also play the piano . . . 
I think I’ll knock one out this weekend”? No. But that's exactly how 
many screenwriters begin: “I've seen a lot of flicks, some good and 
some bad ... I got A's in English . . . vacation time’s coming ...” 

If you hoped to compose, you’d head for music school to study 
both theory and practice, focusing on the genre of symphony. After 
years of diligence, you’d merge your knowledge with your cre¬ 
ativity, flex your courage, and venture to compose. Too many strug¬ 
gling writers never suspect that the creation of a fine screenplay is 
as difficult as the creation of a symphony, and in some ways more 
so. For while the composer scores with the mathematical purity of 
notes, we dip into the messy stuff known as human nature. 

The novice plunges ahead, counting solely on experience, 
thinking that the life he's lived and the films he’s seen give him 
something to say and the way to say it. Experience, however, is 
overrated. Of course we want writers who don’t hide from life, who 
live deeply, observe closely. This is vital but never enough. For 
most writers, the knowledge they gain from reading and study 
equals or outweighs experience, especially if that experience goes 
unexamined. Self-knowledge is the key—life plus deep reflection on 
our reactions to life. 

As for technique, what the novice mistakes for craft is simply 
his unconscious absorption of story elements from every novel, 
film, or play he's ever encountered. As he writes, he matches his 


work by trial and error against a model built up from accumulated 
reading and watching. The unschooled writer calls this “instinct,” 
but it's merely habit and it’s rigidly limiting. He either imitates his 
mental prototype or imagines himself in the avant-garde and rebels 
against it. But the haphazard groping toward or revolt against the 
sum of unconsciously ingrained repetitions is not, in any sense, 
technique, and leads to screenplays clogged with cliches of either 
the commercial or the art house variety. 

This hit-or-miss struggle wasn’t always the case. In decades 
past screenwriters learned their craft either through university 
study or on their own in a library, through experience in the theatre 
or in writing novels, through apprenticeship to the Hollywood 
studio system, or through a combination of these means. 

Early in this century a number of American universities came 
to believe that, like musicians and painters, writers need the equiv¬ 
alent of music or art school to learn the principles of their craft. To 
that end scholars such as William Archer, Kenneth Rowe, and John 
Howard Lawson wrote excellent books on dramaturgy and the 
prose arts. Their method was intrinsic, drawing strength from the 
big-muscle movements of desire, forces of antagonism, turning 
points, spine, progression, crisis, climax —story seen from the inside 
out. Working writers, with or without formal educations, used 
these texts to develop their art, turning the half-century from the 
Roaring Twenties through the protesting sixties into a golden age 
of the American story on screen, page, and stage. 

Over the last twenty-five years, however, the method of 
teaching creative writing in American universities has shifted from 
the intrinsic to the extrinsic. Trends in literary theory have drawn 
professors away from the deep sources of story toward language, 
codes, text —story seen from the outside. As a result, with some 
notable exceptions, the current generation of writers has been 
undereducated in the prime principles of story. 

Screenwriters abroad have had even less opportunity to study 
their craft. European academics generally deny that writing can, in 
any sense, be taught, and as a result, courses in Creative Writing 
have never been included in the curriculum of Continental univer- 


sities. Europe does, of course, foster many of the world’s most bril¬ 
liant art and music academies. Why it’s felt that one art is teach¬ 
able, another not, is impossible to say. What’s worse, disdain for 
screenwriting has, until recently, excluded it from study in all Euro¬ 
pean film schools save Moscow and Warsaw. 

Much can be said against the old Hollywood studio system, but 
to its credit it was a system of apprenticeship overseen by seasoned 
story editors. That day is gone. Every now and then a studio redis¬ 
covers apprenticeship, but in its zeal to bring back the golden days 
it forgets that an apprentice needs a master. Today’s executives 
may recognize ability, but few have the skill or patience to turn a 
talent into an artist. 

The final cause for the decline of story runs very deep. Values, 
the positive/negative charges of life, are at the soul of our art. The 
writer shapes story around a perception of what's worth living for, 
what's worth dying for, what's foolish to pursue, the meaning of 
justice, truth—the essential values. In decades past, writer and 
society more or less agreed on these questions, but more and more 
ours has become an age of moral and ethical cynicism, relativism, 
and subjectivism—a great confusion of values. As the family disin¬ 
tegrates and sexual antagonisms rise, who, for example, feels he 
understands the nature of love? And how, if you do have a convic¬ 
tion, do you express it to an ever-more skeptical audience? 

This erosion of values has brought with it a corresponding ero¬ 
sion of story. Unlike writers in the past, we can assume nothing. 
First we must dig deeply into life to uncover new insights, new 
refinements of value and meaning, then create a story vehicle that 
expresses our interpretation to an increasingly agnostic world. No 
small task. 


When I moved to Los Angeles, I did what many do to keep eating 
and writing—I read. I worked for UA and NBC, analyzing screen 
and teleplay submissions. After the first couple hundred analyses, I 
felt I could write up in advance an all-purpose Hollywood story ana- 


lyst’s coverage and just fill in title and writer. The report I wrote 
over and over again went like this: 

Nice description, actable dialogue. Some amusing moments; some 
sensitive moments. All in all, a script of well-chosen words. The story, 
however, sucks. The first thirty pages crawl on a fat belly of exposi¬ 
tion; the rest never get to their feet. The main plot, what there is of it, 
is riddled with convenient coincidence and weak motivation. No dis¬ 
cernible protagonist. Unrelated tensions that could shape into sub¬ 
plots never do. Characters are never revealed to be more than they 
seem. Not a moment's insight into the inner lives of these people or 
their society. It's a lifeless collection of predictable, ill-told, and 
cliched episodes that wander off into a pointless haze. PASS ON IT. 

But I never wrote this report: 

Great story! Grabbed me on page one and held me in its embrace. 

The first act builds to a sudden climax that spins off into a superb 
weave of plot and subplot. Sublime revelations of deep character. 
Amazing insight into this society. Made me laugh, made me cry. 
Drove to an Act Two climax so moving that I thought the story 
was over. And yet, out of the ashes of the second act, this writer cre¬ 
ated a third act of such power, such beauty, such magnificence I'm 
writing this report from the floor. However, this script is a 270-page 
grammatical nightmare with every fifth word misspelled. Dia¬ 
logue's so tangled Olivier couldn't get his tongue around it. 
Descriptions are stuffed with camera directions, subtextural expla¬ 
nations, and philosophical commentary. It’s not even typed in the 
proper format. Obviously not a professional writer. PASS ON IT. 

If I'd written this report, I’d have lost my job. 

The sign on the door doesn’t read “Dialogue Department” or 
“Description Department.” It reads “Story Department.” A good 
story makes a good film possible, while failure to make the story 
work virtually guarantees disaster. A reader who can’t grasp this 
fundamental deserves to be fired. It's surprisingly rare, in fact, to 


find a beautifully crafted story with bad dialogue or dull descrip¬ 
tion. More often than not, the better the storytelling, the more vivid 
the images, the sharper the dialogue. But lack of progression, false 
motivation, redundant characters, empty subtext, holes, and other 
such story problems are the root causes of a bland, boring text. 

Literary talent is not enough. If you cannot tell a story, all those 
beautiful images and subtleties of dialogue that you spent months 
and months perfecting waste the paper they’re written on. What we 
create for the world, what it demands of us, is story. Now and for¬ 
ever. Countless writers lavish dressy dialogue and manicured 
descriptions on anorexic yarns and wonder why their scripts never 
see production, while others with modest literary talent but great 
storytelling power have the deep pleasure of watching their dreams 
living in the light of the screen. 

Of the total creative effort represented in a finished work, 75 
percent or more of a writer’s labor goes into designing story. Who 
are these characters? What do they want? Why do they want it? 
How do they go about getting it? What stops them? What are the 
consequences? Finding the answers to these grand questions and 
shaping them into story is our overwhelming creative task. 

Designing story tests the maturity and insight of the writer, his 
knowledge of society, nature, and the human heart. Story demands 
both vivid imagination and powerful analytic thought. Self-expression 
is never an issue, for, wittingly or unwittingly, all stories, honest 
and dishonest, wise and foolish, faithfully mirror their maker, 
exposing his humanity ... or lack of it. Compared to this terror, 
writing dialogue is a sweet diversion. 

So the writer embraces the principle. Tell Story . . . then 
freezes. For what is story? The idea of story is like the idea of 
music. We’ve heard tunes all our lives. We can dance and sing 
along. We think we understand music until we try to compose it 
and what comes out of the piano scares the cat. 

are wonderful stories beautifully told for the screen—and they are— 
what on earth do they have in common? If HANNAH AND HER 


brilliant comic stories delightfully told, and they are, where do they 
DOGS. Moving back through the decades, compare VERTIGO to 872 
screen stories, all vastly different, yet all produce the same result: an 
audience leaving the theatre exclaiming, “What a great story!” 

Drowning in a sea of genres and styles, the writer may come to 
believe that if all these films tell story, then anything can be a story. 
But if we look deeply, if we strip away the surface, we find that at 
heart all are the same thing. Each is an embodiment of the uni¬ 
versal form of story. Each articulates this form to the screen in a 
unique way, but in each the essential form is identical, and it is to 
this deep form that the audience is responding when it reacts with, 
“What a good story!” 

Each of the arts is defined by its essential form. From sym¬ 
phony to hip-hop, the underlying form of music makes a piece 
music and not noise. Whether representational or abstract, the car¬ 
dinal principles of visual art make a canvas a painting, not a 
doodle. Equally, from Homer to Ingmar Bergman, the universal 
form of story shapes a work into story, not portraiture or collage. 
Across all cultures and through all ages, this innate form has been 
endlessly variable but changeless. 

Yet form does not mean formula.’’ There is no screenplay-writing 
recipe that guarantees your cake will rise. Story is far too rich in 
mystery, complexity, and flexibility to be reduced to a formula. 
Only a fool would try. Rather, a writer must grasp story form. This 
is inescapable. 


“Good story” means something worth telling that the world wants 
to hear. Finding this is your lonely task. It begins with talent. You 


must be born with the creative power to put things together in a 
way no one has ever dreamed. Then you must bring to the work a 
vision that's driven by fresh insights into human nature and 
society, coupled with in-depth knowledge of your characters and 
your world. All that . . . and, as Hallie and Whit Burnett reveal in 
their excellent little book, a lot of love. 

The love of story—the belief that your vision can be expressed 
only through story, that characters can be more “real” than people, 
that the fictional world is more profound than the concrete. The love 
of the dramatic—a fascination with the sudden surprises and reve¬ 
lations that bring sea-changes in life. The love of truth—the belief 
that lies cripple the artist, that every truth in life must be ques¬ 
tioned, down to one’s own secret motives. The love of humanity—a 
willingness to empathize with suffering souls, to crawl inside their 
skins and see the world through their eyes. The love of sensation— 
the desire to indulge not only the physical but the inner senses. The 
love of dreaming—the pleasure in taking leisurely rides on your 
imagination just to see where it leads. The love of humor—a joy in 
the saving grace that restores the balance of life. The love of lan¬ 
guage—the delight in sound and sense, syntax and semantics. The 
love of duality—a feel for life’s hidden contradictions, a healthy sus¬ 
picion that things are not what they seem. The love of perfection— 
the passion to write and rewrite in pursuit of the perfect moment. 
The love of uniqueness—the thrill of audacity and a stone-faced 
calm when it is met by ridicule. The love of beauty—an innate 
sense that treasures good writing, hates bad writing, and knows the 
difference. The love of self—a strength that doesn't need to be con¬ 
stantly reassured, that never doubts that you are indeed a writer. 
You must love to write and bear the loneliness. 

But the love of a good story, of terrific characters and a world 
driven by your passion, courage, and creative gifts is still not 
enough. Your goal must be a good story well told. 

fust as a composer must excel in the principles of musical com¬ 
position, so you must master the corresponding principles of story 
composition. This craft is neither mechanics nor gimmicks. It is 
the concert of techniques by which we create a conspiracy of 


interest between ourselves and the audience. Craft is the sum total 
of all means used to draw the audience into deep involvement, to 
hold that involvement, and ultimately to reward it with a moving 
and meaningful experience. 

Without craft, the best a writer can do is snatch the first idea 
off the top of his head, then sit helpless in front of his own work, 
unable to answer the dreaded questions: Is it good? Or is it sewage? 
If sewage, what do I do? The conscious mind, fixated on these ter¬ 
rible questions, blocks the subconscious. But when the conscious 
mind is put to work on the objective task of executing the craft, the 
spontaneous surfaces. Mastery of craft frees the subconscious. 

What is the rhythm of a writer’s day? First, you enter your 
imagined world. As characters speak and act, you write. What’s the 
next thing you do? You step out of your fantasy and read what 
you’ve written. And what do you do as you read? You analyze. “Is it 
good? Does it work? Why not? Should I cut? Add? Reorder?” You 
write, you read; create, critique; impulse, logic; right brain, left 
brain; re-imagine, rewrite. And the quality of your rewriting, the 
possibility of perfection, depends on a command of the craft that 
guides you to correct imperfection. An artist is never at the mercy 
of the whims of impulse; he willfully exercises his craft to create 
harmonies of instinct and idea. 


Over the years I’ve observed two typical and persistent kinds of 
failed screenplay. The first is the “personal story” bad script: 

In an office setting we meet a protagonist with a problem: She 
deserves a promotion but she’s being passed over. Angry, she heads 
for her parents’ home to discover that Dad’s gone senile and Mom 
can’t cope. Home to her apartment and a fight with her slobbish, 
conniving roommate. Now out on a date and smack into a failure to 
communicate: Her insensitive lover takes her to an expensive French 
restaurant, completely forgetting that she's on a diet. Back to the 
office where, amazingly, she gets her promotion ... but new pres- 


sures arise. Back at her parents' place, where just as she solves Dad’s 
problem, Mom goes over the edge. Coming home she discovers that 
her roommate has stolen her TV and vanished without paying the 
rent. She breaks up with her lover, raids the refrigerator, and gains 
jive pounds. But chin up, she turns her promotion into a triumph. A 
nostalgic heart-to-heart over a dinner with her folks cures Mom’s 
woes. Her new roommate not only turns out to be an anal-retentive 
gem who pays the rent weeks ahead with cashier’s checks, but intro¬ 
duces her to Someone New. We're now on page ninety-jive. She 
sticks to her diet and looks great for the last twenty five pages, which 
are the literary equivalent of running in slow-mo through daisies as 
the romance with Someone New blossoms. At last she confronts her 
Crisis Decision: whether or not to commit? The screenplay ends on a 
tearful Climax as she decides she needs her space. 

Second is the “guaranteed commercial success” bad script: 

Through a luggage mix-up at the airport, a software salesman 
comes into possession of the-thing-that-will-end-civilization-as- 
we-know-it-today. The-thing-that-will-end-civilization-as-we-know- 
it-today is quite small. In fact, it’s concealed inside a ballpoint pen 
unwittingly in the pocket of this hapless protagonist, who becomes 
the target of a cast of three dozen characters, all of whom have 
double or triple identities, all of whom have worked on both sides of 
the Iron Curtain, all of whom have known one another since the 
Cold War, all of whom are trying to kill the guy. This script is 
stuffed with car chases, shoot-outs, hair-raising escapes, and explo¬ 
sions. When not blowing things up or shooting folks down, it halts 
for dialogue-thick scenes as the hero tries to sort through these 
duplicitous people and find out just whom he can trust. It ends with 
a cacophony of violence and multimillion-dollar effects, during which 
the hero manages to destroy the-thing-that-will-end-civilization-as- 
we-know-it-today and thus save humanity. 

The “personal story” is understructured, slice-of-life portraiture 
that mistakes verisimilitude for truth. This writer believes that the 


more precise his observation of day-to-day facts, the more accurate 
his reportage of what actually happens, the more truth he tells. But 
fact, no matter how minutely observed, is truth with a small “t ” Big 
T Truth is located behind, beyond, inside, below the surface of 
things, holding reality together or tearing it apart, and cannot be 
directly observed. Because this writer sees only what is visible and 
factual, he is blind to the truth of life. 

The “guaranteed commercial success,” on the other hand, is an 
overstructured, overcomplicated, overpopulated assault on the 
physical senses that bears no relationship to life whatsoever. This 
writer is mistaking kinesis for entertainment. He hopes that, 
regardless of story, if he calls for enough high-speed action and 
dazzling visuals, the audience will be excited. And given the Com¬ 
puter Generated Image phenomenon that drives so many summer 
releases, he would not be altogether wrong. 

Spectacles of this kind replace imagination with simulated 
actuality. They use story as an excuse for heretofore unseen effects 
that carry us into a tornado, the jaws of a dinosaur, or futuristic 
holocausts. And make no mistake, these razzle-dazzle spectacles 
can deliver a circus of excitement. But like amusement park rides, 
their pleasures are short-lived. For the history of filmmaking has 
shown again and again that as fast as new kinetic thrills rise to pop¬ 
ularity, they sink under a “been there, done that” apathy. 

Every decade or so technical innovation spawns a swarm of ill- 
told movies, for the sole purpose of exploiting spectacle. The inven¬ 
tion of film itself, a startling simulation of actuality, caused great 
public excitement, followed by years of vapid stories. In time, how¬ 
ever, the silent film evolved into a magnificent art form, only to be 
destroyed by the advent of sound, a yet more realistic simulation of 
actuality. Films of the early 1930s took a step backward as audi¬ 
ences willingly suffered bland stories for the pleasure of hearing 
actors talk. The talkie then grew in power and beauty, only to be 
knocked off stride by the inventions of color, 3-D, wide-screen, and 
now Computer Generated Images, or CGI. 

CGI is neither a curse nor a panacea. It simply adds fresh hues 
to the story pallet. Thanks to CGI, anything we can imagine can be 


done, and done with subtle satisfaction. When CGIs are motivated 
by a strong story, such as FORREST GUMP or MEN IN BLACK, 
the effect vanishes behind the story it’s telling, enriching the 
moment without calling attention to itself. The “commercial” 
writer, however, is often dazzled by the glare of spectacle and 
cannot see that lasting entertainment is found only in the charged 
human truths beneath the image. 

The writers of portraiture and spectacle, indeed all writers, 
must come to understand the relationship of story to life: Story is 
metaphor for life. 

A storyteller is a life poet, an artist who transforms day-to-day 
living, inner life and outer life, dream and actuality into a poem 
whose rhyme scheme is events rather than words—a two-hour 
metaphor that says: Life is like thisl Therefore, a story must abstract 
from life to discover its essences, but not become an abstraction 
that loses all sense of life-as-lived. A story must be like life, but not 
so verbatim that it has no depth or meaning beyond what’s obvious 
to everyone on the street. 

Writers of portraiture must realize that facts are neutral. The 
weakest possible excuse to include anything in a story is: “But it actu¬ 
ally happened.” Everything happens; everything imaginable happens. 
Indeed, the unimaginable happens. But story is not life in actuality. 
Mere occurrence brings us nowhere near the truth. What happens is 
fact, not truth. Truth is what we think about what happens. 

Consider a set of facts known as “The Life of Joan of Arc.” For 
centuries celebrated writers have brought this woman to the stage, 
page, and screen, and each Joan is unique—Anouilh’s spiritual 
Joan, Shaw's witty Joan, Brecht’s political Joan, Dreyer’s suffering 
Joan, Hollywood’s romantic warrior. In Shakespeare’s hands she 
became the lunatic Joan, a distinctly British point of view. Each 
Joan is divinely inspired, raises an army, defeats the English, burns 
at the stake. Joan’s facts are always the same, but whole genres 
shift while the “truth” of her life waits for the writer to find its 

Likewise, writers of spectacle must realize that abstractions are 
neutral. By abstractions I mean strategies of graphic design, visual 


effects, color saturation, sound perspective, editing rhythm, and the 
like. These have no meaning in and of themselves. The identical 
editing pattern applied to six different scenes results in six distinc¬ 
tively different interpretations. The aesthetics of film are the means 
to express the living content of story, but must never become an 
end in themselves. 


Although the authors of portraiture or spectacle are weak in story, 
they may be blessed with one of two essential powers. Writers who 
lean toward reportage often have the power of the senses, the 
power to transport corporal sensations into the reader. They see 
and hear with such acuity and sensitivity that the reader’s heart 
jumps when struck by the lucid beauty of their images. Writers of 
action extravaganzas, on the other hand, often have the imaginative 
power to lift audiences beyond what is to what could be. They can 
take presumed impossibilities and turn them into shocking certain¬ 
ties. They also make hearts jump. Both sensory perception and a 
lively imagination are enviable gifts, but, like a good marriage, one 
complements the other. Alone they are diminished. 

At one end of reality is pure fact; at the other end, pure imagi¬ 
nation. Spanning these two poles is the infinitely varied spectrum 
of fiction. Strong storytelling strikes a balance along this spectrum. 
If your writing drifts to one extreme or the other, you must learn to 
draw all aspects of your humanity into harmony. You must place 
yourself along the creative spectrum: sensitive to sight, sound, and 
feeling, yet balancing that with the power to imagine. Dig in a two- 
handed way, using your insight and instinct to move us, to express 
your vision of how and why human beings do the things they do. 

Last, not only are sensory and imaginative powers prerequisite 
to creativity, writing also demands two singular and essential tal¬ 
ents. These talents, however, have no necessary connection. A 
mountain of one does not mean a grain of the other. 

The first is literary talent—the creative conversion of ordinary 
language into a higher, more expressive form, vividly describing 


the world and capturing its human voices. Literary talent is, how¬ 
ever, common. In every literate community in the world, hundreds, 
if not thousands of people can, to one degree or another, begin 
with the ordinary language of their culture and end with something 
extraordinary. They write beautifully, a few magnificently, in the lit¬ 
erary sense. 

The second is story talent—the creative conversion of life itself 
to a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. It seeks 
out the inscape of our days and reshapes it into a telling that 
enriches life. Pure story talent is rare. What writer, on instinct 
alone, creates brilliantly told stories year after year and never gives 
a moment’s thought to how he does what he does or could do it 
better? Instinctive genius may produce a work of quality once, but 
perfection and prolificness do not flow from the spontaneous and 

Literary and story talent are not only distinctively different but 
are unrelated, for stories do not need to be written to be told. Sto¬ 
ries can be expressed any way human beings can communicate. 
Theatre, prose, film, opera, mime, poetry, dance are all magnificent 
forms of the story ritual, each with its own delights. At different 
times in history, however, one of these steps to the fore. In the six¬ 
teenth century it was the theatre; in the nineteenth century, the 
novel; in the twentieth century, the cinema, the grand concert of all 
the arts. The most powerful, eloquent moments on screen require 
no verbal description to create them, no dialogue to act them. They 
are image, pure and silent. The material of literary talent is words; 
the material of story talent is life itself 


Rare as story talent is, we often meet people who seem to have it by 
nature, those street-corner raconteurs for whom storytelling is as 
easy as a smile. When, for example, coworkers gather around the 
coffee machine, the storytelling begins. It’s the currency of human 
contact. And whenever a half-dozen souls gather for this mid¬ 
morning ritual, there will always be at least one who has the gift. 


Let’s say that this morning our storyteller tells her friends the 
story of “How I Put My Kids on the School Bus.” Like Coleridge’s 
Ancient Mariner, she hooks everyone's attention. She draws them 
into her spell, holding them slack-jawed over their coffee cups. She 
spins her tale, building them up, easing them down, making them 
laugh, maybe cry, holding all in high suspense until she pays it off 
with a dynamite last scene: “And that’s how I got the little 
nosepickers on the bus this morning.” Her coworkers lean back 
satisfied, muttering, “God, yes, Helen, my kids are just like that.” 

Now let’s say the storytelling passes to the guy next to her who 
tells the others the heartrending tale of how his mother died over 
the weekend . . . and bores the hell out of everyone. His story is all 
on the surface, repetitious rambling from trivial detail to cliche: 
“She looked so good in her coffin.” Halfway through his rendition, 
the rest head back to the coffee pot for another cup, turning a deaf 
ear to his tale of grief. 

Given the choice between trivial material brilliantly told versus 
profound material badly told, an audience will always choose the 
trivial told brilliantly. Master storytellers know how to squeeze life 
out of the least of things, while poor storytellers reduce the pro¬ 
found to the banal. You may have the insight of a Buddha, but if 
you cannot tell story, your ideas turn dry as chalk. 

Story talent is primary, literary talent secondary but essential. 
This principle is absolute in film and television, and truer for stage 
and page than most playwrights and novelists wish to admit. Rare 
as story talent is, you must have some or you wouldn’t be itching to 
write. Your task is to wring from it all possible creativity. Only by 
using everything and anything you know about the craft of story¬ 
telling can you make your talent forge story. For talent without 
craft is like fuel without an engine. It burns wildly but accom¬ 
plishes nothing. 


A beautifully told story is a symphonic unity in which structure, 
setting, character, genre, and idea meld seamlessly. To find their 
harmony, the writer must study the elements of story as if they 
were instruments of an orchestra—first separately, then in concert. 

2 , 



When a character steps into your imagination, he brings an abun¬ 
dance of story possibilities. If you wish, you could start the telling 
before the character is born, then follow him day after day, decade 
after decade until dead and gone. A character’s life encompasses 
hundreds of thousands of living hours, hours both complex and 

From an instant to eternity, from the intracranial to the 
intergalactic, the life story of each and every character 
offers encyclopedic possibilities. The mark of a master 
is to select only a few moments but give us a lifetime. 

Starting at the deepest level, you might set the story within the 
protagonist’s inner life and tell the whole tale inside his thoughts 
and feelings, awake or dreaming. Or you could shift up to the level 
of personal conflict between protagonist and family, friends, lovers. 
Or expand into social institutions, setting the character at odds with 
school, career, church, the justice system. Or wider still, you could 
pit the character against the environment—dangerous city streets, 
lethal diseases, the car that won’t start, time running out. Or any 
combination of all these levels. 

But this complex expanse of life story must become the story told. To 
design a feature film, you must reduce the seething mass and rush of 

3 1 


life story to just two little hours, more or less, that somehow express 
everything you left out. And when a story is well told, isn’t that the 
effect? When friends come back from a film and you ask them what it 
was about, have you noticed they often put the story told inside life story ? 

“Great! About a guy raised on a sharecropper’s farm. As a kid he 
toiled with his family under the hot sun. He went to school but didn’t 
do too well because he had to get up at dawn, all that weeding and 
hoeing. But somebody gave him a guitar and he learned to play, write 
his own songs . .. finally, fed up with this backbreaking life, he ran 
away, living hand to mouth playing in honky-tonk bars. Then he met a 
beautiful gal with a great voice. They fell in love, teamed up, and, 
bang, their careers skyrocketed. But the trouble was the spotlight was 
always on her. He wrote their songs, arranged, backed her up, but 
people only came to see her. Living in her shadow, he turned to drink. 
Finally she throws him out, and there he is back on the road again, 
until he hits rock bottom. He wakes up in a cheap motel in a dusty 
Midwest town, middle of nowhere, penniless, friendless, a hopeless 
drunk, not a dime for the phone and no one to call if he had one.” 

In other words, TENDER MERCIES told from birth. But 
nothing of the above is in the film. TENDER MERCIES begins the 
morning Robert Duvall’s Mac Sledge wakes up at rock bottom. The 
next two hours cover the next year in Sledge’s life. Yet, in and 
between scenes, we come to know all of his past, everything of sig¬ 
nificance that happens to Sledge in that year, until the last image 
gives us a vision of his future. A man’s life, virtually from birth to 
death, is captured between the FADE IN and FADE OUT of 
Horton Foote’s Oscar-winning screenplay. 


From the vast flux of life story the writer must make choices. Fictional 
worlds are not daydreams but sweatshops where we labor in search of 
material to tailor a film. Yet when asked “What do you choose?” no 
two writers agree. Some look for character, others for action or strife, 
perhaps mood, images, dialogue. But no one element, in and of itself, 
will build a story. A film isn’t just moments of conflict or activity, per- 


sonality or emotionality, witty talk or symbols. What the writer seeks 
are events, for an event contains all the above and more. 

STRUCTURE is a selection of events from the characters' 
life stories that is composed into a strategic sequence to 
arouse specific emotions and to express a specific view 
of life. 

An event is caused by or affects people, thus delineating charac¬ 
ters; it takes place in a setting, generating image, action, and dia¬ 
logue; it draws energy from conflict producing emotion in 
characters and audience alike. But event choices cannot be dis¬ 
played randomly or indifferently; they must be composed, and "to 
compose" in story means much the same thing it does in music. 
What to include? To exclude? To put before and after what? 

To answer these questions you must know your purpose. 
Events composed to do what? One purpose may be to express your 
feelings, but this becomes self-indulgence if it doesn't result in 
arousing emotions in the audience. A second purpose may be to 
express ideas, but this risks solipsism if the audience cannot 
follow. So the design of events needs a dual strategy. 


“Event” means change. If the streets outside your window are dry, 
but after a nap you see they’re wet, you assume an event has taken 
place, called rain. The world's changed from dry to wet. You 
cannot, however, build a film out of nothing but changes in 
weather—although there are those who have tried. Story Events are 
meaningful, not trivial. To make change meaningful it must, to 
begin with, happen to a character. If you see someone drenched in 
a downpour, this has somewhat more meaning than a damp street. 

A STORY EVENT creates meaningful change in the life sit¬ 
uation of a character that is expressed and experienced 
in terms of a VALUE. 


To make change meaningful you must express it, and the audi¬ 
ence must react to it, in terms of a value. By values I don't mean 
virtues or the narrow, moralizing “family values” use of the word. 
Rather, Story Values refers to the broadest sense of the idea. Values 
are the soul of storytelling. Ultimately ours is the art of expressing 
to the world a perception of values. 

STORY VALUES are the universal qualities of human 
experience that may shift from positive to negative, or 
negative to positive, from one moment to the next. 

For example: alive/dead (positive/negative) is a story value, as 
are love/hate, freedom/slavery, truth/lie, courage/cowardice, loy¬ 
alty/betrayal, wisdom/stupidity, strength/weakness, excitement/ 
boredom and so on. All such binary qualities of experience that can 
reverse their charge at any moment are Story Values. They may be 
moral, good/evil; ethical, right/wrong; or simply charged with 
value. Hope/despair is neither moral nor ethical, but we certainly 
know when we are at one end of the experience or the other. 

Imagine that outside your window is 1980s Hast Africa, a realm 
of drought. Now we have a value at stake: survival, life/death. We 
begin at the negative: This terrible famine is taking lives by the 
thousands. If then it should rain, a monsoon that brings the earth 
back to green, animals to pasture, and people to survival, this rain 
would be deeply meaningful because it switches the value from 
negative to positive, from death to life. 

However, as powerful as this event would be, it still does not 
qualify as a Story Event because it happened by coincidence. Rain 
finally fell in East Africa. Although there’s a place for coincidence 
in storytelling, a story cannot be built out of nothing but accidental 
events, no matter how charged with value. 

A Story Event creates meaningful change in the life 
situation of a character that is expressed and experi¬ 
enced in terms of a value and ACHIEVED THROUGH 


Again, a world of drought. Into it comes a man who imagines 
himself a “rainmaker.” This character has deep inner conflict 
between his passionate belief that he can bring rain, although he 
has never been able to do it, and his terrible fear that he’s a fool or 
mad. He meets a woman, falls in love, then suffers as she tries to 
believe in him, but turns away, convinced he’s a charlatan or worse. 
He has a strong conflict with society—some follow him as if he’s a 
messiah; others want to stone him out of town. Lastly, he faces 
implacable conflict with the physical world—the hot winds, empty 
skies, parched earth. If this man can struggle through all his inner 
and personal conflicts, against social and environmental forces and 
finally coax rain out of a cloudless sky, that storm would be 
majestic and sublimely meaningful—for it is change motivated 
through conflict. What I have described is THE RAINMAKER, 
adapted to the screen by Richard Nash from his own play. 


For a typical film, the writer will choose forty to sixty Story Events 
or, as they're commonly known, scenes. A novelist may want more 
than sixty, a playwright rarely as many as forty. 

A SCENE is an action through conflict in more or less 
continuous time and space that turns the value-charged 
condition of a character's life on at least one value with 
a degree of perceptible significance. Ideally, every scene 

Look closely at each scene you’ve written and ask: What value is 
at stake in my character’s life at this moment? Love? Truth? What? 
How is that value charged at the top of the scene? Positive? Nega¬ 
tive? Some of both? Make a note. Next turn to the close of the scene 
and ask, Where is this value now? Positive? Negative? Both? Make 
a note and compare. If the answer you write down at the end of the 
scene is the same note you made at the opening, you now have 
another important question to ask: Why is this scene in my script? 


If the value-charged condition of the character’s life stays 
unchanged from one end of a scene to the other, nothing mean¬ 
ingful happens. The scene has activity—talking about this, doing 
that—but nothing changes in value. It is a nonevent. 

Why then is the scene in the story? The answer is almost cer¬ 
tain to be “exposition.” It’s there to convey information about char¬ 
acters, world, or history to the eavesdropping audience. If 
exposition is a scene’s sole justification, a disciplined writer will 
trash it and weave its information into the film elsewhere. 

No scene that doesn't turn. This is our ideal. We work to round 
every scene from beginning to end by turning a value at stake in a 
character’s life from the positive to the negative or the negative to 
the positive. Adherence to this principle may be difficult, but it’s by 
no means impossible. 

this test, but the ideal is also kept in subtler, though no less rig¬ 
TOURIST. The difference is that Action genres turn on public 
values such as freedom/slavery or justice/injustice; the Education 
genre turns on interior values such as self-awareness/self-deception 
or life as meaningful/meaningless. Regardless of genre, the prin¬ 
ciple is universal: If a scene is not a true event, cut it. 

For example: 

Chris and Andy are in love and live together. They wake up one 
morning and start to squabble. Their spat builds in the kitchen as 
they hurry to make breakfast. In the garage, the fight becomes nas¬ 
tier as they climb into their car to drive to work together. Finally 
words explode into violence on the highway. Andy wrenches the car 
to the shoulder and jumps out, ending their relationship. This series 
of actions and locations creates a scene: It takes the couple from the 
positive (in love and together) to the negative (in hate and apart). 

The four shifts of place—bedroom to kitchen to garage to 
highway—are camera setups but not true scenes. Although they 
intensify behavior and make the critical moment credible, they do 


not change the values at stake. As the argument moves through the 
morning, the couple is still together and presumably in love. But 
when the action reaches its Turning Point—a slamming car door 
and Andy's declaration, “It’s over!”—life turns upside down for the 
lovers, activity changes to action, and the sketch becomes a com¬ 
plete scene, a Story Event. 

Generally the test of whether a series of activities constitutes a true 
scene is this: Could it have been written “in one,” in a unity of time 
and place? In this case the answer is yes. Their argument could begin 
in a bedroom, build in the bedroom, and end the relationship in the 
bedroom. Countless relationships have ended in bedrooms. Or the 
kitchen. Or the garage. Or not on the highway but in the office ele¬ 
vator. A playwright might write the scene “in one” because the staging 
limitations of the theatre often force us to keep the unities of time and 
place; the novelist or screenwriter, on the other hand, might travel the 
scene, parsing it out in time and space to establish future locations, 
Chris’s taste in furniture, Andy’s driving habits—for any number of 
reasons. This scene could even cross-cut with another scene, perhaps 
involving another couple. The variations are endless, but in all cases 
this is a single Story Event, the “lovers break up” scene. 


Inside the scene is the smallest element of structure, the Beat. (Not 
to be confused with [beat], an indication within a column of dia¬ 
logue meaning “short pause”.) 

A BEAT is an exchange of behavior in action/reaction. 

Beat by Beat these changing behaviors shape the turning 

of a scene. 

Taking a closer look at the “lovers break up” scene: As the 
alarm goes off, Chris teases Andy and he reacts in kind. As they 
dress, teasing turns to sarcasm and they throw insults back and 
forth. Now in the kitchen Chris threatens Andy with: “If I left you, 
baby, you’d be so miserable . . but he calls her bluff with “That’s 


a misery I'd love.” In the garage Chris, afraid she’s losing him, 
begs Andy to stay, but he laughs and ridicules her plea. Finally, in 
the speeding car, Chris doubles her fist and punches Andy. A fight, 
a squeal of brakes. Andy jumps out with a bloody nose, slams the 
door and shouts, “It’s over,” leaving her in shock. 

This scene is built around six beats, six distinctively different 
behaviors, six clear changes of action/reaction: teasing each other, fol¬ 
lowed by a give-and-take of insults, then threatening and daring each 
other, next pleading and ridiculing, and finally exchanges of violence 
that lead to the last Beat and Turning Point: Andy’s decision and 
action that ends the relationship, and Chris’s dumbfounded surprise. 


Beats build scenes. Scenes then build the next largest movement of 
story design, the Sequence. Every true scene turns the value-charged 
condition of the character’s life, but from event to event the degree 
of change can differ greatly. Scenes cause relatively minor yet signif¬ 
icant change. The capping scene of a sequence, however, delivers a 
more powerful, determinant change. 

A SEQUENCE is a series of scenes—generally two to 
five—that culminates with greater impact than any pre¬ 
vious scene. 

For example, this three-scene sequence: 

Setup: A young business woman who’s had a notable 
career in the Midwest has been approached by headhunters 
and interviewed for a position with a New York corpora¬ 
tion. If she wins this post, it’ll be a huge step up in her 
career. She wants the job very much but hasn’t won it yet 
(negative). She is one of six finalists. The corporate heads 
realize that this position has a vital public dimension to it, 
so they want to see these applicants on their feet in an 
informal setting before making the final decision. They 
invite all six to a party on Manhattan’s East Side. 


Scene One: A West Side Hotel where our protagonist 
prepares for the evening. The value at stake is self-confi¬ 
dence/self-doubt. She’ll need all her confidence to pull off 
this evening successfully, but she’s filled with doubts (neg¬ 
ative). Fear knots her middle as she paces the room, telling 
herself she was a fool to come East, these New Yorkers will 
eat her alive. She flings clothes out of her suitcase, trying 
on this, trying on that, but each outfit looks worse than the 
one before. Her hair is an uncombable tangle of frizz. As 
she grapples with her clothes and hair, she decides to pack 
it in and save herself the humiliation. 

Suddenly, the phone rings. It’s her mother, calling to 
lace a good-luck toast with guilt trips about loneliness and 
her fear of abandonment. Barbara hangs up, realizing that 
the piranhas of Manhattan are no match for the great white 
shark at home. She needs this job! She then amazes herself 
with a combination of clothes and accessories she’s never 
tried before. Her hair falls magically into place. She plants 
herself in front of the mirror, looking great, eyes bright, 
glowing with confidence (positive). 

Scene Two: Under the hotel marquee. Thunder, light¬ 
ning, pelting rain. Because Barbara’s from Terre Haute, 
she didn’t know to tip the doorman five bucks when she 
registered, so he won’t go out into the storm to find a cab 
for a stiff. Besides, when it rains in New York there are no 
cabs. So she studies her visitors’ map, pondering what to 
do. She realizes if she tries to run from the West Eighties 
over to Central Park West, then all the way down CPW to 
Fifty-ninth Street, across Central Park South to Park 
Avenue, and up into the East Eighties, she’ll never get to 
the party on time. So she decides to do what they warn 
never, ever to do—to run through Central Park at night. 
This scene takes on a new value: life/death. 

She covers her hair with a newspaper and darts into the 
night, daring death (negative). A lightning flash and, bang, 
she’s surrounded by that gang that is always out there, rain 


or shine, waiting for the fools who run through the park at 
night. But she didn’t take karate classes for nothing. She 
kick-fights her way through the gang, breaking jaws, scat¬ 
tering teeth on the concrete, until she stumbles out of the 
park, alive (positive). 

Scene Three: Mirrored lobby—Park Avenue apartment 
building. The value at stake now switches to social suc¬ 
cess/social failure. She’s survived. But then she looks in the 
mirror and sees a drowned rat: newspaper shredded in her 
hair; blood all over her clothes—the gang’s blood—but 
blood nonetheless. Her self-confidence plummets past 
doubt and fear until she bows in personal defeat (negative), 
crushed by her social disaster (negative). 

Taxis pull up with the other applicants. All found cabs; 
all get out looking New York chic. They take pity on the 
poor loser from the Midwest and usher her into an elevator. 

In the penthouse they towel off her hair and find mis¬ 
matched clothes for her to wear, and because she looks like 
this, the spotlight’s on her all night. Because she knows she 
has lost anyway, she relaxes into her natural self and from 
deep within comes a chutzpah she never knew she had; she 
not only tells them about her batde in the park but makes 
jokes about it. Mouths go slack with awe or wide with 
laughter. At end of the evening, all the executives know exactly 
who they want for the job: Anyone who can go through that 
terror in the park and display this kind of cool is clearly the 
person for them. The evening ends on her personal and social 
triumphs as she is given the job (doubly positive). 

Each scene turns on its own value or values. Scene One: self¬ 
doubt to self-confidence. Scene Two: death to life; self-confidence 
to defeat. Scene Three: social disaster to social triumph. But the 
three scenes become a sequence of another, greater value that over¬ 
rides and subordinates the others, and that is THE JOB. At the 
beginning of the sequence she has NO JOB. The third scene 
becomes a Sequence Climax because here social success wins her 


THE JOB. From her point of view THE JOB is a value of such mag¬ 
nitude she risked her life for it. 

It’s useful to title each sequence to make clear to yourself why it's 
in the film. The story purpose of this “getting the job” sequence is to 
take her from NO JOB to JOB. It could have been accomplished in a 
single scene with a personnel officer. But to say more than “she's 
qualified,” we might create a full sequence that not only gets her the 
job but dramatizes her inner character and relationship to her 
mother, along with insights into New York City and the corporation. 


Scenes turn in minor but significant ways; a series of scenes builds a 
sequence that turns in a moderate, more impactful way; a series of 
sequences builds the next largest structure, the Act, a movement that 
turns on a major reversal in the value-charged condition of the char¬ 
acter’s life. The difference between a basic scene, a scene that climaxes 
a sequence, and a scene that climaxes an act is the degree of change, 
or, more precisely, the degree of impact that change has, for better or 
worse, on the character—on the character’s inner life, personal rela¬ 
tionships, fortunes in the world, or some combination of all these. 

An ACT is a series of sequences that peaks in a climactic 
scene which causes a major reversal of values, more 
powerful in its impact than any previous sequence or 


A series of acts builds the largest structure of all: the Story. A story is 
simply one huge master event. When you look at the value-charged 
situation in the life of the character at the beginning of the story, then 
compare it to the value-charge at the end of the story, you should see 
the arc of the film, the great sweep of change that takes life from one 
condition at the opening to a changed condition at the end. This final 
condition, this end change, must be absolute and irreversible. 


Change caused by a scene could be reversed: The lovers in the 
previous sketch could get back together; people fall in and out and 
back in love again every day. A sequence could be reversed: The 
Midwest businesswoman could win her job only to discover that 
she reports to a boss she hates and wishes she were back in Terre 
Haute. An act climax could be reversed: A character could die, as in 
the Act Two climax of E.T., and then come back to life. Why not? In 
a modern hospital, reviving the dead is commonplace. So, scene by 
sequence by act, the writer creates minor, moderate, and major 
change, but conceivably, each of those changes could be reversed. 
This is not, however, the case in the climax of the last act. 

STORY CLIMAX: A story is a series of acts that build to 
a last act climax or story climax which brings about 
absolute and irreversible change. 

If you make the smallest element do its job, the deep purpose 
of the telling will be served. Let every phrase of dialogue or line of 
description either turn behavior and action or set up the conditions 
for change. Make your beats build scenes, scenes build sequences, 
sequences build acts, acts build story to its climax. 

The scenes that turn the life of the Terre Haute protagonist from 
self-doubt to self-confidence, from danger to survival, from social dis¬ 
aster to success combine into a sequence that takes her from NO JOB 
to JOB. To arc the telling to a Story Climax, perhaps this opening 
sequence sets up a series of sequences that takes her from NO JOB to 
PRESIDENT OF THE CORPORATION at the Act One climax. This 
Act One climax sets up an Act Two in which internecine corporate 
wars lead to her betrayal by friends and associates. At the Act Two 
climax she’s fired by the board of directors and out on the street. This 
major reversal sends her to a rival corporation where, armed with 
business secrets gleaned while she was president, she quickly reaches 
the top again so she can enjoy destroying her previous employers. These 
acts arc her from the hardworking, optimistic, and honest young profes¬ 
sional who opens the film to the ruthless, cynical, and corrupt veteran of 
corporate wars who ends the film—absolute, irreversible change. 



In some literary circles “plot” has become a dirty word, tarred 
with a connotation of hack commercialism. The loss is ours, for 
plot is an accurate term that names the internally consistent, inter¬ 
related pattern of events that move through time to shape and 
design a story. While no fine film was ever written without flashes 
of fortuitous inspiration, a screenplay is not an accident. Material 
that pops up willy-nilly cannot remain willy-nilly. The writer 
redrafts inspiration again and again, making it look as if an instinc¬ 
tive spontaneity created the film, yet knowing how much effort and 
unnaturalness went into making it look natural and effortless. 

To PLOT means to navigate through the dangerous ter¬ 
rain of story and when confronted by a dozen branching 
possibilities to choose the correct path. Plot is the 
writer's choice of events and their design in time. 

Again, what to include? Exclude? Put before and after what? 
Event choices must be made; the writer chooses either well or ill; 
the result is plot. 

When TENDER MERCIES premiered, some reviewers described 
it as “plotless,” then praised it for that. TENDER MERCIES not only 
has a plot, it is exquisitely plotted through some of the most difficult 
film terrain of all: a story in which the arc of the film takes place 
within the mind of the protagonist. Here the protagonist experiences 
a deep and irreversible revolution in his attitude toward life and/or 
toward himself. 

For the novelist such stories are natural and facile. In either 
third-person or first-person, the novelist can directly invade 
thought and feeling to dramatize the tale entirely on the landscape 
of the protagonist’s inner life. For the screenwriter such stories are 
by far the most fragile and difficult. We cannot drive a camera lens 
through an actor’s forehead and photograph his thoughts, although 
there are those who would try. Somehow we must lead the audi¬ 
ence to interpret the inner life from outer behavior without loading 


the soundtrack with expositional narration or stuffing the mouths 
of characters with self-explanatory dialogue. As John Carpenter 
said, “Movies are about making mental things physical.” 

To begin the great sweep of change within his protagonist, 
Horton Foote opens TENDER MERCIES with Sledge drowning in 
the meaninglessness of his life. He is committing slow suicide 
with alcohol because he no longer believes in anything—neither 
family, nor work, nor this world, nor the hereafter. As Foote pro¬ 
gresses the film, he avoids the cliche of finding meaning in one 
overwhelming experience of great romance, brilliant success, or 
religious inspiration. Instead he shows us a man weaving together 
a simple yet meaningful life from the many delicate threads of love, 
music, and spirit. At last Sledge undergoes a quiet transformation 
and finds a life worth living. 

We can only imagine the sweat and pains Horton Foote 
invested in plotting this precarious film. A single misstep—one 
missing scene, one superfluous scene, a slight misordering of inci¬ 
dent—and like a castle of cards, the riveting inner journey of Mac 
Sledge collapses into portraiture. Plot, therefore, doesn't mean 
ham-handed twists and turns, or high-pressure suspense and 
shocking surprise. Rather, events must be selected and their pat¬ 
terning displayed through time. In this sense of composition or 
design, all stories are plotted. 

Archplot, Miniplot, Antiplot 

Although the variations of event design are innumerable, they are 
not without limits. The far corners of the art create a triangle of 
formal possibilities that maps the universe of stories. Within this 
triangle is the totality of writers’ cosmologies, all their multitudi¬ 
nous visions of reality and how life is lived within it. To understand 
your place in this universe, study the coordinates of this map, com¬ 
pare them to your work-in-progress, and let them guide you to that 
point you share with other writers of a similar vision. 

At the top of the story triangle are the principles that constitute 
Classical Design. These principles are “classical” in the truest sense: 


timeless and transcultural, fundamental to every earthly society, 
civilized and primitive, reaching back through millennia of oral 
storytelling into the shadows of time. When the epic Gilgamesh was 
carved in cuneiform on twelve clay tablets 4,000 years ago, con¬ 
verting story to the written word for the first time, the principles of 
Classical Design were already fully and beautifully in place. 

CLASSICAL DESIGN means a story built around an active 
protagonist who struggles against primarily external 
forces of antagonism to pursue his or her desire, through 
continuous time, within a consistent and causally con¬ 
nected fictional reality, to a closed ending of absolute, 
irreversible change. 

This collection of timeless principles I call the Archplot: Arch 
(pronounced “ark” as in archangel) in the dictionary sense of “emi¬ 
nent above others of the same kind.” 







The Archplot, however, is not the limit of storytelling shapes. In 
the left comer, I place all examples of minimalism. As the word sug¬ 
gests, minimalism means that the writer begins with the elements of 
Classical Design but then reduces them—shrinking or compressing, 
trimming or truncating the prominent features of the Archplot. I call 
this set of minimalist variations Miniplot. Miniplot does not mean no 
plot, for its story must be as beautifully executed as an Archplot. 
Rather, minimalism strives for simplicity and economy while 
retaining enough of the classical that the film will still satisfy the audi¬ 
ence, sending them out of the cinema thinking, “What a good story!” 

In the right corner is Antiplot, the cinema counterpart to the 
antinovel or Nouveau Roman and Theatre of the Absurd. This set 
of antistructure variations doesn’t reduce the Classical but reverses 
it, contradicting traditional forms to exploit, perhaps ridicule the 
very idea of formal principles. The Antiplot-maker is rarely inter¬ 
ested in understatement or quiet austerity; rather, to make clear his 
“revolutionary” ambitions, his films tend toward extravagance and 
self-conscious overstatement. 

The Archplot is the meat, potatoes, pasta, rice, and couscous of 
world cinema. For the past one hundred years it has informed the vast 
majority of films that have found an international audience. If we 
skim through the decades—THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY 
(USA/1904), THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (Italy/1913), THE CAB¬ 
INET OF DR. CALIGARI (Germany/1920), GREED (USA/1924), 
THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (USSR/1925), M (Germany/1931), 
TOP HAT (USA/1935), LA GRANDE ILLUSION (France/1937), 
(Japan/1954), MARTY (USA/1955), THE SEVENTH SEAL 
(Sweden/1957), THE HUSTLER (USA/1961), 2001: A SPACE 
(China/1990), THELMA & LOUISE (USA/1991), FOUR WED¬ 
DINGS AND A FUNERAL (UK/1994), SHINE (Australia/1996)—we 
glimpse the staggering variety of story embraced within the Archplot. 


Miniplot, though less various, is equally international: NANOOK 
(France/1928), ZERO DE CONDUITE (France/1933), PAISAN 
(Italy/1946), WILD STRAWBERRIES (Sweden/1957), THE MUSIC 
ROOM (India/1964), THE RED DESERT (Italy/1964), FIVE EASY 
PIECES (USA/1970), CLAIRE’S KNEE (France/1970), IN THE 
(USA/1983), PARIS, TEXAS (West Germany/France/1984), THE 
(Denmark/1987), STOLEN CHILDREN (Italy/1992), A RIVER 
RUNS THROUGH IT (USA/1993), TO LIVE (China/1994), and 
SHALL WE DANCE (Japan/1997). Miniplot also embraces narrative 
documentaries such as WELFARE (USA/1975). 

Examples of Antiplot are less common, predominantly Euro¬ 
pean, and post-World War II: UN CHIEN ANDALOU (France/1928), 
i960), 872 (Italy/1963), PERSONA (Sweden/1966), WEEKEND 
(France/1967), DEATH BY HANGING (Japan/1968), CLOWNS 
Netherlands/1985), WAYNE’S WORLD (USA/1993), CHUNGKING 
EXPRESS (Hong Kong/1994), LOST HIGHWAY (USA/1997). Anti¬ 
plot also includes the documentary-cum-collage such as Alain Resnais’s 
NIGHT AND FOG (France/1955) and KOYAANISQATSI (USA/1983). 


Closed Versus Open Endings 

The Archplot delivers a closed ending—all questions raised by the 
story are answered; all emotions evoked are satisfied. The audience 


leaves with a rounded, closed experience—nothing in doubt, nothing 

Miniplot, on the other hand, often leaves the ending somewhat 
open. Most of the questions raised by the telling are answered, but 
an unanswered question or two may trail out of the film, leaving 
the audience to supply it subsequent to the viewing. Most of the 
emotion evoked by the film will be satisfied, but an emotional 
residue may be left for the audience to satisfy. Although Miniplot 
may end on a question mark of thought and feeling, “open” doesn't 
mean the film quits in the middle, leaving everything hanging. The 
question must be answerable, the emotion resolvable. All that has 
gone before leads to clear and limited alternatives that make a 
degree of closure possible. 

A Story Climax of absolute, irreversible change that 
answers all questions raised by the telling and satisfies 
all audience emotion is a CLOSED ENDING. 

A Story Climax that leaves a question or two unanswered 
and some emotion unfulfilled is an OPEN ENDING. 

At the climax of PARIS, TEXAS father and son are reconciled; 
their future is set and our hope for their happiness satisfied. But 
the husband/wife, mother/son relationships are left unresolved. 
The questions “Will this family have a future together? If so, what 
kind of future will it be?” are open. The answers will be found in 
the privacy of postfilm thoughts: If you want this family to get 
together, but your heart tells you they aren’t going to make it, it’s a 
sad evening. If you can convince yourself that they will live happily 
ever after, you walk out pleased. The minimalist storyteller deliber¬ 
ately gives this last critical bit of work to the audience. 

External Versus Internal Conflict 

The Archplot puts emphasis on external conflict. Although charac¬ 
ters often have strong inner conflicts, the emphasis falls on their 


struggles with personal relationships, with social institutions, or 
with forces in the physical world. In Miniplot, to the contrary, the 
protagonist may have strong external conflicts with family, society, 
and environment, but emphasis will fall on the battles within his 
own thoughts and feelings, conscious or unconscious. 

Compare the journeys of the protagonists in THE ROAD WAR¬ 
RIOR and THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST. In the former, Mel 
Gibson’s Mad Max undergoes an inner transformation from self- 
sufficient loner to self-sacrificing hero, but the emphasis of the 
story falls on the survival of the clan. In the latter, the life of 
William Hurt’s travel writer changes as he remarries and becomes 
the much-needed father to a lonely boy, but the emphasis of the 
film falls on the resurrection of this man’s spirit. His transforma¬ 
tion from a man suffering a paralysis of emotions to a man free to 
love and feel is the film’s dominant arc of change. 

Single Versus Multiple Protagonists 

The classically told story usually places a single protagonist—man, 
woman, or child—at the heart of the telling. One major story dom¬ 
inates screentime and its protagonist is the star role. However, if 
the writer splinters the film into a number of relatively small, sub¬ 
plot-sized stories, each with a separate protagonist, the result mini- 
malizes the roller-coaster dynamic of the Archplot and creates the 
Multiplot variation of Miniplot that’s grown in popularity since the 

In THE FUGITIVE’S highly charged Archplot the camera never 
loses sight of Harrison Ford's protagonist: no glances sideways, not 
even a hint of a subplot. PARENTHOOD, on the other hand, is a 
tempered weave of no fewer than six tales of six protagonists. As in 
an Archplot, the conflicts of these six characters are predominantly 
external; none of them undergoes the deep suffering and inner 
change of THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST. But because these family 
battles draw our feelings in so many directions and because each 
story receives a brief fifteen or twenty minutes of screentime, their 
multiple design softens the telling. 


The Multiplot dates from INTOLERANCE (USA/1916), 
(Sweden/1961), and SHIP OF FOOLS (USA/1965) to its common 

Active Versus Passive Protagonist 

The single protagonist of an Archplot tends to be active and 
dynamic, willfully pursuing desire through ever-escalating conflict 
and change. The protagonist of a Miniplot design, although not 
inert, is relatively reactive and passive. Generally this passivity is 
compensated for either by giving the protagonist a powerful inner 
struggle as in THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST or by surrounding 
him with dramatic events as in the Multiplot design of PELLE THE 

An ACTIVE PROTAGONIST, in the pursuit of desire, 
takes action in direct conflict with the people and the 
world around him. 

A PASSIVE PROTAGONIST is outwardly inactive while pur¬ 
suing desire inwardly, in conflict with aspects of his or her 
own nature. 

The title character of PELLE THE CONQUEROR is an adoles¬ 
cent under the control of the adult world and therefore has little 
choice but to be reactive. Writer Bille August, however, takes 
advantage of Pelle’s alienation to make him the passive observer of 
tragic stories around him: Illicit lovers commit infanticide, a 
woman castrates her husband for adultery, the leader of a workers’ 
revolt is bludgeoned into a cretin. Because August controls the 
telling from the child’s point of view, these violent events are kept 
offscreen or at a distance, so that we rarely see the cause, only the 
aftermath. The design softens or minimalizes what could have 
been melodramatic, even distasteful. 


Linear Versus Nonlinear Time 

An Archplot begins at a certain point in time, moves elliptically 
through more or less continuous time, and ends at a later date. If 
flashbacks are used, they are handled so that the audience can 
place the story’s events in their temporal order. An antiplot, on the 
other hand, is often disjunctive, scrambling or fragmenting time to 
make it difficult, if not impossible, to sort what happened into any 
linear sequence. Godard once remarked that in his aesthetic a film 
must have a beginning, middle, and end ... but not necessarily in 
that order. 

A story with or without flashbacks and arranged into a 
temporal order of events that the audience can follow 
is told in LINEAR TIME. 

A story that either skips helter-skelter through time or 
so blurs temporal continuity that the audience cannot 
sort out what happens before and after what is told in 

In the aptly titled Antiplot BAD TIMING a psychoanalyst (Art 
Garfunkel) meets a woman (Theresa Russell) while vacationing in 
Austria. The first third of the film contains scenes that seem to 
come from the early going of the affair, but between them flash-for¬ 
wards leap to scenes from the relationship’s middle and late stages. 
The center third of the film is spattered with scenes that we 
assume are from their middle period, but interspersed with flash¬ 
backs to the beginning and flash-forwards to the end. The last third 
is dominated by scenes that seem to come from the couple’s final 
days but are spliced with flashbacks to middle and beginning. The 
film ends on an act of necrophilia. 

BAD TIMING is a contemporary reworking of the ancient idea of 
“character as destiny”—the notion that your fate equals who you are, 
that the final consequences of your life will be determined by the 
unique nature of your character and nothing else—not family, 


society, environment, or chance. By tossing time like a salad, BAD 
TIMING’S antistructure design disconnects the characters from the 
world around them. What difference does it make whether they went 
to Salzburg one weekend or Vienna the next; whether they had lunch 
here or dinner there; quarreled over this or that or didn’t? What mat¬ 
ters is the poisonous alchemy of their personalities. The moment this 
couple met they stepped on a bullet train to their grotesque fate. 

Causality Versus Coincidence 

The Archplot stresses how things happen in the world, how a cause 
creates an effect, how this effect becomes a cause that triggers yet 
another effect. Classical story design charts the vast interconnected¬ 
ness of life from the obvious to the impenetrable, from the inti¬ 
mate to the epic, from individual identity to the international 
infosphere. It lays bare the network of chain-linked causalities that, 
when understood, gives life meaning. The Antiplot, on the other 
hand, often substitutes coincidence for causality, putting emphasis 
on the random collisions of things in the universe that break the 
chains of causality and lead to fragmentation, meaninglessness, 
and absurdity. 

CAUSALITY drives a story in which motivated actions 
cause effects that in turn become the causes of yet 
other effects, thereby interlinking the various levels of 
conflict in a chain reaction of episodes to the Story 
Climax, expressing the interconnectedness of reality. 

COINCIDENCE drives a fictional world in which unmoti¬ 
vated actions trigger events that do not cause further 
effects, and therefore fragment the story into divergent 
episodes and an open ending, expressing the discon¬ 
nectedness of existence. 

In AFTER HOURS a young man (Griffin Dunne) makes a date 
with a woman he meets by chance in a Manhattan coffee shop. On 


the trip to her Soho apartment his last twenty bucks is blown out 
the taxi window. He then seems to find his money stapled to a 
bizarre statue-in-progress in her loft. His date suddenly commits a 
well-planned suicide. Trapped in Soho without money for the 
subway, he’s mistaken for a burglar and hunted by a vigilante mob. 
Lunatic characters and an overflowing toilet block his escape, until 
he’s hidden inside a statue, stolen by real burglars, and finally falls 
out of their getaway truck, smack onto the steps of the building 
where he works, right on time for his day at the word processor. 
He’s a pool ball on the table of God, randomly bouncing around 
until he drops into a pocket. 

Consistent Versus Inconsistent Realities 

Story is a metaphor for life. It takes us beyond the factual to the 
essential. Therefore, it’s a mistake to apply a one-for-one standard 
from reality to story. The worlds we create obey their own internal 
rules of causality. An Archplot unfolds within a consistent reality 
. . . but reality, in this case, doesn’t mean actuality. Even the most 
naturalistic, “life as lived’’ Miniplot is an abstracted and rarefied 
existence. Each fictional reality uniquely establishes how things 
happen within it. In an Archplot these rules cannot be broken— 
even if they are bizarre. 

CONSISTENT REALITIES are fictional settings that estab¬ 
lish modes of interaction between characters and their 
world that are kept consistently throughout the telling 
to create meaning. 

Virtually all works in the Fantasy genre, for example, are Arch¬ 
plots in which whimsical rules of “reality” are strictly obeyed. Sup¬ 
pose that in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT a human character 
were to chase Roger, a cartoon character, toward a locked door. 
Suddenly Roger flattens into two dimensions, slides under the sill, 
and escapes. The human slams into the door. Fine. But now this 
becomes a story rule: No human can catch Roger because he can 


switch to two dimensions and escape. Should the writer want 
Roger caught in a future scene, he would have to devise a non¬ 
human agent or go back to rewrite the previous chase. Having cre¬ 
ated story rules of causality, the writer of an Archplot must work 
within his self-created discipline. Consistent Reality, therefore, 
means an internally consistent world, true to itself. 

INCONSISTENT REALITIES are settings that mix modes 
of interaction so that the story's episodes jump incon¬ 
sistently from one "reality" to another to create a 
sense of absurdity. 

In an Antiplot, however, the only rule is to break rules: In Jean- 
Luc Godard’s WEEKEND a Parisian couple decides to murder an 
elderly aunt for her insurance money. On the way to the aunt’s 
country home an accident, more hallucinatory than real, destroys 
their red sports car. Later, as the couple trudges on foot down a 
lovely shaded lane, Emily Bronte suddenly appears, plucked out of 
nineteenth-century England and dropped onto a twentieth-century 
French path, reading her novel Wuthering Heights. The Parisians 
hate Emily on sight, whip out a Zippo lighter, set her crinoline 
skirts on fire, burn her to a crisp . . . and walk on. 

A slap in the face for classical literature? Perhaps, but it doesn't 
happen again. This isn’t a time-travel movie. Nobody else shows up 
out of the past or future; just Emily; just once. A rule made to be 

The desire to turn the Archplot on its head began early in this 
century. Writers such as August Strindberg, Ernst Toller, Virginia 
Woolf, fames Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and William S. Burroughs felt 
the need to sever the links between the artist and external reality, 
and with it, between the artist and the greater part of the audience. 
Expressionism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Stream of Consciousness, 
Theatre of the Absurd, the antinovel, and cinematic antistructure 
may differ in technique but share the same result: a retreat inside 
the artist’s private world to which the audience is admitted at the 
artist’s discretion. These are worlds in which not only are events 


atemporal, coincidental, fragmented, and chaotic, but characters do 
not operate within a recognizable psychology. Neither sane nor 
insane, they are either deliberately inconsistent or overtly symbolic. 

Films in this mode are not metaphors for “life as lived,” but for 
“life as thought about.” They reflect not reality, but the solipsism of 
the filmmaker, and in doing so, stretch the limits of story design 
toward didactic and ideational structures. However, the inconsistent 
reality of an Antiplot such as WEEKEND has a unity of sorts. When 
done well, it’s felt to be an expression of the subjective state of mind 
of the filmmaker. This sense of a single perception, no matter how 
incoherent, holds the work together for audiences willing to venture 
into its distortions. 









8V2 N 






The seven formal contradictions and contrasts listed above are 
not hard and fast. There are unlimited shades and degrees of open¬ 
ness/closedness, passivity/activity, consistent/inconsistent reality, 
and the like. All storytelling possibilities are distributed inside the 
story design triangle, but very few films are of such purity of form 
that they settle at its extreme corners. Each side of the triangle is a 
spectrum of structural choices, and writers slide their stories along 
these lines, blending or borrowing from each extreme. 

halfway between Archplot and Miniplot. Each tells the tale of a 
rather passive isolate; each leaves its ending open as the future of 
the subplot’s love story goes unanswered. Neither is as classically 
designed as CHINATOWN or THE SEVEN SAMURAI, nor as 

Multiplot films are also less than classical and more than min¬ 
imal. The works of Robert Altman, a master of this form, span a 
spectrum of possibilities. A Multiplot work may be “hard,” tending 
toward Archplot, as individual stories turn frequently with strong 
external consequences (NASHVILLE), or “soft,” leaning toward 
Miniplot, as plot lines slow their pace and action becomes internal¬ 
ized (3 WOMEN). 

A film could be quasi-Antiplot. When, for example, Nora Ephron 
and Rob Reiner inserted scenes of Mockumentary into WHEN 
HARRY MET SALLY, his film’s overall “reality” came into question. 
The documentary-styled interviews of older couples looking back on 
how they met are in fact delightfully scripted scenes with actors 
working in a documentary style. These false realities sandwiched 
inside an otherwise conventional love story pushed the film toward 
the inconsistent reality of antistructure and self-reflexive satire. 

A film like BARTON FINK sits at the center, drawing qualities 
from each of the three extremes. It begins as the story of a young 
New York playwright (single protagonist) who's trying to make his 
mark in Hollywood (active conflict with external forces)— Archplot. 
But Fink (John Turturro) becomes more and more reclusive and 
suffers a severe writer’s block (inner conflict)— Miniplot. When 


that progresses into hallucination, we grow less and less sure of 
what’s real, what’s fantasy (inconsistent realities), until nothing can 
be trusted (fractured temporal and causal order)— Antiplot . The 
ending is rather open, with Fink staring out to sea, but it’s fairly 
certain he’ll never write in that town again. 

Change Versus Stasis 

Above the line drawn between Miniplot and Antiplot are stories in 
which life clearly changes. At the limits of Miniplot, however, 
change may be virtually invisible because it occurs at the deepest 
level of inner conflict: HUSBANDS. Change at the limits of 
Antiplot may explode into a cosmic joke: MONTY PYTHON AND 
THE HOLY GRAIL. But in both cases stories arc and life changes 
for better or worse. 

Below this line stories remain in stasis and do not arc. The 
value-charged condition of the character’s life at the end of the 


film is virtually identical to that at the opening. Story dissolves 
into portraiture, either a portrait of verisimilitude or one of absur¬ 
dity. I term these films Nonplot. Although they inform us, touch 
us, and have their own rhetorical or formal structures, they do not 
tell story. Therefore, they fall outside the story triangle and into a 
realm that would include everything that could be loosely called 

In slice-of-life works such as UMBERTO D, FACES, and 
NAKED, we discover protagonists leading lonely, troubled lives. 
They’re tested by even more suffering, but by the film’s end they 
seem resigned to the pain of life, even ready for more. In SHORT 
CUTS, individual lives are altered within its many story lines, but a 
soulless malaise bookends the film and permeates everything, until 
murder and suicide seem a natural part of the landscape. Although 
nothing changes within the universe of a Nonplot, we gain a 
sobering insight and hopefully something changes within us. 

Antistructured Nonplots also trace a circular pattern but turn it 
with absurdity and satire done in an supra-unnaturalistic style. 
OF LIBERTY (France/1974) string together scenes that ridicule 
bourgeois antics, sexual and political, but the blind fools of the 
opening scenes are just as blind and foolish when the closing titles 


In an ideal world art and politics would never touch. In reality they 
can't keep their hands off each other. So as in all things, politics lurks 
inside the story triangle: the politics of taste, the politics of festivals 
and awards, and, most important, the politics of artistic versus com¬ 
mercial success. And as in all things political, the distortion of truth 
is greatest at the extremes. Each of us has a natural address some¬ 
where on the story triangle. The danger is that for reasons more ideo¬ 
logical than personal, you may feel compelled to leave home and 
work in a distant comer, trapping yourself into designing stories you 


don’t in your heart believe. But if you take an honest look at film’s 
often specious polemics, you won’t lose your way. 

Over the years the primary political issue in cinema has been 
“Hollywood film” versus “art film.” Although the terms seem 
dated, their partisans are very contemporary and vocal. Tradition¬ 
ally, their arguments have been framed in terms of big budget 
versus low budget, special effects versus painterly composition, the 
star system versus ensemble acting, private finance versus govern¬ 
ment support, and auteurs versus guns-for-hire. But hiding inside 
these debates are two diametrically opposed visions of life. The cru¬ 
cial frontier stretches across the bottom of story triangle: stasis 
versus change, a philosophical contradiction with profound impli¬ 
cations for the writer. Let’s begin by defining terms: 

The concept “Hollywood film" does not include REVERSAL OF 
LOVE YOU. These films, and many more like them, are acclaimed 
international successes produced by Hollywood studios. THE 
ACCIDENTAL TOURIST made more than $250 million world¬ 
wide, surpassing most Action films, but doesn’t fall within the defi¬ 
nition. The political meaning of “Hollywood film” is narrowed to 
thirty or forty special effects-dominated flicks and an equal 
number of farces and romances that Hollywood makes each year— 
far less than half of the town’s output. 

“Art film," in the broadest sense, means non-Hollywood, more 
specifically foreign film, even more specifically European film. 
Each year western Europe produces over four hundred films, gen¬ 
erally more than Hollywood. “Art film,” however, doesn’t refer to 
the large number of European productions that are blood-spattered 
action, hard-core pornography, or slapstick farce. In the language 
of cafe criticism “art film” (a silly phrase—imagine “art novel” or 
“art theatre”) is restricted to that trickle of excellent films, like 
manage to cross the Atlantic. 


These terms were coined in the wars of cultural politics and 
point to vastly different, if not contradictory, views of reality. Holly¬ 
wood filmmakers tend to be overly (some would say foolishly) opti¬ 
mistic about the capacity of life to change—especially for the 
better. Consequently, to express this vision they rely on the Arch¬ 
plot and an inordinately high percentage of positive endings. Non- 
Hollywood filmmakers tend to be overly (some would say chicly) 
pessimistic about change, professing that the more life changes, 
the more it stays the same, or, worse, that change brings suffering. 
Consequently, to express the futility, meaninglessness, or destruc¬ 
tiveness of change, they tend to make static, Nonplot portraiture or 
extreme Miniplots and Antiplots with negative endings. 

These are tendencies, of course, with exceptions on both sides 
of the Atlantic, but the dichotomy is real and deeper than the seas 
that separate the Old World from the New. Americans are escapees 
from prisons of stagnant culture and rigid class who crave change. 
We change and change again, trying to find what, if anything, 
works. After weaving the trillion-dollar safety net of the Great 
Society, we're now shredding it. The Old World, on the other hand, 
has learned through centuries of hard experience to fear such 
change, that social transformations inevitably bring war, famine, 

The result is our polarized attitude toward story: The ingen¬ 
uous optimism of Hollywood (not naive about change but about its 
insistence on positive change) versus the equally ingenuous pes¬ 
simism of the art film (not naive about the human condition but 
about its insistence that it will never be other than negative or 
static). Too often Hollywood films force an up-ending for reasons 
more commercial than truthful; too often non-Hollywood films 
cling to the dark side for reasons more fashionable than truthful. 
The truth, as always, sits somewhere in the middle. 

The art film’s focus on inner conflict draws the interest of 
those with advanced degrees, because the inner world is where the 
highly educated spend a large amount of time. Minimalists, how¬ 
ever, often overestimate the appetite of even the most self-absorbed 
minds for a diet of nothing but inner conflict. Worse, they also 


overestimate their talent to express the unseeable on screen. By the 
same token, Hollywood’s action filmmakers underestimate the 
interest of their audience in character, thought, and feeling, and, 
worse, overestimate their ability to avoid Action genre cliches. 

Because story in Hollywood film is often forced and cliched, 
directors must compensate with something else to hold the audi¬ 
ence’s attention, resorting to transformation effects and cacopho¬ 
nous derring-do: THE FIFTH ELEMENT. In the same vein, because 
story is often thin or absent in the art film, again, directors must 
compensate. In this case, with one of two possibilities: information 
or sensory stimulation. Either dialogue-heavy scenes of political 
argument, philosophical musing, and characters’ self-conscious 
descriptions of their emotions; or lush production design and pho¬ 
tography or musical scores to pleasure the audience’s senses: THE 

The sad truth of the political wars of contemporary cinema is 
that the excesses of both “art film” and “Hollywood film” are the 
mirror images of each other: The telling is forced to become a daz¬ 
zling surface of spectacle and sound to distract the audience from 
the vacancy and falsity of the story . . . and in both boredom follows 
as night the day. 

Behind the political squabbling over finance, distribution, and 
awards lies a deep cultural divide, reflected in the opposing world¬ 
views of Archplot versus Miniplot and Antiplot. From story to story 
the writer may move anywhere within the triangle, but most of us 
feel more at home in one place or another. You must make your 
own “political” choices and decide where you reside. As you do, let 
me offer these points for you to weigh: 

The Writer Must Earn His Living Writing 

Writing while holding down a forty-hour-a-week job is possible. 
Thousands have done it. But in time, exhaustion sets in, concentra¬ 
tion wanders, creativity crumbles, and you’re tempted to quit. 
Before you do, you must find a way to earn your living from your 
writing. A talented writer’s survival in the real world of film and 


television, theatre, and publishing begins with his recognition of 
this fact: As story design moves away from the Archplot and down 
the triangle toward the far reaches of Miniplot, Antiplot, and Non¬ 
plot, the audience shrinks. 

This atrophy has nothing to do with quality or a lack of it. All 
three corners of the story triangle gleam with masterworks that the 
world treasures, pieces of perfection for our imperfect world. 
Rather, the audience shrinks for this reason: Most human beings 
believe that life brings closed experiences of absolute, irreversible 
change; that their greatest sources of conflict are external to them¬ 
selves; that they are the single and active protagonists of their own 
existence; that their existence operates through continuous time 
within a consistent, causally interconnected reality; and that inside 
this reality events happen for explainable and meaningful reasons. 
Since our first ancestor stared into a fire of his own making and 
thought the thought, “I am,” this is how human beings have seen 
the world and themselves in it. Classical design is a mirror of the 
human mind. 

Classical design is a model of memory and anticipation. When 
we think back to the past, do we piece events together antistruc¬ 
tured? Minimalistically? No. We collect and shape memories 
around an Archplot to bring the past back vividly. When we day¬ 
dream about the future, what we dread or pray will happen, is our 
vision minimalistic? Antistructured? No, we mold our fantasies 
and hopes into an Archplot. Classical design displays the temporal, 
spatial, and causal patterns of human perception, outside which 
the mind rebels. 

Classical design is not a Western view of life. For thousands of 
years, from the Levant to Java to Japan, the storytellers of Asia have 
framed their works within the Archplot, spinning yarns of high 
adventure and great passion. As the rise of Asian film has shown, 
Eastern screenwriters draw on the same principles of classical 
design used in the West, enriching their tellings with a unique wit 
and irony. The Archplot is neither ancient nor modern, Western 
nor Eastern; it is human. 

When the audience senses that a story is drifting too close to fic- 


tional realities it finds tedious or meaningless, it feels alienated and 
turns away. This is true of intelligent, sensitive people of all incomes 
and backgrounds. The vast majority of human beings cannot 
endorse the inconsistent realities of Antiplot, the internalized pas¬ 
sivity of Miniplot, and the static circularity of Nonplot as metaphors 
for life as they live it. As story reaches the bottom of the triangle the 
audience has shrunk to those loyal, cinephile intellectuals who like 
to have their realities twisted once in a while. This is an enthusiastic, 
challenging audience ... but a very small audience. 

If the audience shrinks, the budget must shrink. This is the 
law. In 1961 Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote LAST YEAR AT MARIEN- 
BAD and throughout the seventies and eighties he wrote brilliant 
Antiplot puzzle pieces—films more about the art of writing than 
about the act of living. I once asked him how, despite the anticom¬ 
mercial bent of his films, he did it. He said he’d never spent more 
than $750,000 to make a film and never would. His audience was 
faithful but meager. At an ultra-low budget his investors doubled 
their money and kept him in the director’s chair. But at $2 million 
they would lose their shirts and he his seat. Robbe-Grillet was both 
visionary and pragmatic. 

If, like Robbe-Grillet, you wish to write Miniplot or Antiplot, 
and can find a non-Hollywood producer to work at low budget, and 
are happy with relatively little money for yourself, good. Do it. But 
when you write for Hollywood, a low-budget script is no asset. Sea¬ 
soned professionals who read your minimalist or antistructured 
piece may applaud your handling of image, but decline to be 
involved because experience has taught them that if the story is 
inconsequential, so is the audience. 

Even modest Hollywood budgets run into the tens of millions of 
dollars, and each film must find an audience large enough to repay 
its cost at a profit greater than the same money would have earned 
in a secured investment. Why should investors place millions at 
enormous jeopardy when they can put it into real estate and at least 
have a building when they’re done, not something that’s shown in a 
couple of film festivals, shoved into a refrigerated vault, and for¬ 
gotten? If a Hollywood studio is going to take this wild ride with 


you, you must write a film that has at least a chance of recouping its 
huge risk. In other words, a film that leans toward the Archplot. 

The Writer Must Master Classical Form 

By instinct or study, fine writers recognize that minimalism and 
antistructure are not independent forms but reactions to the Clas¬ 
sical. Miniplot and Antiplot were born out of the Archplot—one 
shrinks it, the other contradicts it. The avant-garde exists to oppose 
the popular and commercial, until it too becomes popular and com¬ 
mercial, then it turns to attack itself. If Nonplot “art films” went 
hot and were raking in money, the avant-garde would revolt, 
denounce Hollywood for selling out to portraiture, and seize the 
Classical for its own. 

These cycles between formality/freedom, symmetry/asymmetry 
are as old as Attic theatre. The history of art is a history of revivals: 
Establishment icons are shattered by an avant-garde that in time 
becomes the new establishment to be attacked by a new avant-garde 
that uses its grandfather’s forms of weapons. Rock ’ri roll, which 
was named after black slang for sex, began as an avant-garde move¬ 
ment against the white-bread sounds of the postwar era. Now it’s 
the definition of musical aristocracy and even used as church music. 

The serious use of Antiplot devices not only has gone out of 
fashion but has become a joke. A vein of dark satire has always run 
through antistructure works, from UN CHIEN ANDALOU to 
WEEKEND, but now direct address to camera, inconsistent reali¬ 
ties, and alternative endings are the staples of film farce. Antiplot 
gags that began with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s THE ROAD TO 
MOROCCO have been worked into the likes of BLAZING SAD¬ 
DLES, the PYTHON films, and WAYNE’S WORLD. Story tech¬ 
niques that once struck us as dangerous and revolutionary now 
seem toothless but charming. 

Respecting these cycles, great storytellers have always known 
that, regardless of background or education, everyone, consciously 
or instinctively, enters the story ritual with Classical anticipation. 
Therefore, to make Miniplot and Antiplot work the writer must 


play with or against this expectancy. Only by carefully and cre¬ 
atively shattering or bending the Classical form can the artist lead 
the audience to perceive the inner life hidden in a Miniplot or to 
accept the chilling absurdity of an Antiplot. But how can a writer 
creatively reduce or reverse that which he does not understand? 

Writers who found success in the deep corners of the story tri¬ 
angle knew that the starting point of understanding was at the top 
and began their careers in the Classical. Bergman wrote and 
directed love stories and social and historical dramas for twenty 
years before he dared venture into the minimalism of THE 
SILENCE or the antistructure of PERSONA. Fellini made I 
VITIONI and LA STRADA before he risked the Miniplot of AMAR- 
CORD or the Antiplot of 872. Godard made BREATHLESS before 
WEEKEND. Robert Altman perfected his story talents in the TV 
series Bonanza and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. First, the masters 
mastered the Archplot. 

I sympathize with the youthful desire to make a first screenplay 
read like PERSONA. But the dream of joining the avant-garde 
must wait while, like the artists before you, you too gain mastery of 
Classical form. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that you under¬ 
stand Archplot because you’ve seen the movies. You’ll know you 
understand it when you can do it. The writer works at his skills until 
knowledge shifts from the left side of the brain to the right, until 
intellectual awareness becomes living craft. 

The Writer Must Believe in What He Writes 

Stanislavski asked his actors: Are you in love with the art in your¬ 
self or yourself in the art? You too must examine your motives for 
wanting to write the way you write. Why do your screenplays find 
their way to one corner of the triangle or the other? What is your 

Each tale you create says to the audience: “I believe life is like 
this.” Every moment must be filled with your passionate conviction 
or we smell a phony. If you write minimalism, do you believe in 
the meanings of this form? Has experience convinced you that life 


brings little or no change? If your ambition is anticlassicism, are 
you convinced of the random meaninglessness of life? If your 
answer is a passionate yes, then write your Miniplot or Antiplot 
and do everything possible to see it made. 

For the vast majority, however, the honest answer to these 
questions is no. Yet antistructure and, in particular, minimalism 
still attract young writers like a Pied Piper. Why? I suspect that for 
many it isn’t the intrinsic meanings of such forms that draw their 
interest. Rather, it’s what these forms represent extrinsically. In 
other words, politics. It isn’t what Antiplot and Miniplot are, it’s 
what they’re not : They’re not Hollywood. 

The young are taught that Hollywood and art are antithetical. 
The novice, therefore, wanting to be recognized as an artist, falls 
into the trap of writing a screenplay not for what it is, but for what 
it’s not. He avoids closure, active characters, chronology, and 
causality to avoid the taint of commercialism. As a result, preten¬ 
tiousness poisons his work. 

A story is the embodiment of our ideas and passions in 
Edmund Husserl’s phrase, “an objective correlative” for the feel¬ 
ings and insights we wish to instill in the audience. When you 
work with one eye on your script and the other on Hollywood, 
making eccentric choices to avoid the taint of commercialism, you 
produce the literary equivalent of a temper tantrum. Like a child 
living in the shadow of a powerful father, you break Hollywood's 
“rules” because it makes you feel free. But angry contradiction of 
the patriarch is not creativity; it’s delinquency calling for attention. 
Difference for the sake of difference is as empty an achievement as 
slavishly following the commercial imperative. Write only what you 




This may be the most demanding time in history to be a writer. 
Compare the story-saturated audience of today to that of centuries 
past. How many times a year did educated Victorians go to the the¬ 
atre? In a era of huge families and no automatic dishwashers, how 
much time did they have for fiction? In a typical week our great- 
great-grandparents may have read or seen five or six hours of 
story—what many of us now consume per day. By the time 
modern filmgoers sit down to your work, they’ve absorbed tens of 
thousands of hours of TV, movies, prose, and theatre. What will 
you create that they haven’t seen before? Where will you find a 
truly original story? How will you win the war on cliche? 

Cliche is at the root of audience dissatisfaction, and like a 
plague spread through ignorance, it now infects all story media. 
Too often we close novels or exit theatres bored by an ending that 
was obvious from the beginning, disgruntled because we’ve seen 
these cliched scenes and characters too many times before. The 
cause of this worldwide epidemic is simple and clear; the source of 
all cliches can be traced to one thing and one thing alone: The 
writer does not know the world of his story. 

Such writers select a setting and launch a screenplay assuming a 
knowledge of their fictional world that they don’t have. As they reach 
into their minds for material, they come up empty. So where do they 
run? To films and TV, novels and plays with similar settings. From 



the works of other writers they crib scenes we’ve seen before, 
paraphrase dialogue we've heard before, disguise characters we’ve 
met before, and pass them off as their own. They reheat literary 
leftovers and serve up plates of boredom because, regardless of 
their talents, they lack an in-depth understanding of their story’s 
setting and all it contains. Knowledge of and insight into the world 
of your story is fundamental to the achievement of originality and 


A story's SETTING is four-dimensional— Period, Duration, 

Location, Level of Conflict. 

The first dimension of time is Period. Is the story set in the con¬ 
temporary world? In history? A hypothetical future? Or is it that 
rare fantasy, such as ANIMAL FARM or WATERSHIP DOWN, in 
which location in time is unknowable and irrelevant? 

PERIOD is a story's place in time. 

Duration is the second dimension of time. How much time 
does the story span within the lives of your characters? Decades? 
Years? Months? Days? Is it that rare work in which storytime 
equals screentime, such as MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, a two- 
hour movie about a two-hour dinner? 

Or rarer still, LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, a film that lique¬ 
fies time into timelessness? It’s conceivable, through cross-cut- 
ting, overlap, repetition, and/or slow motion, for screentime to 
surpass storytime. Although no feature-length film has attempted 
this, a few sequences have done it brilliantly—most famous of all, 
the “Odessa Steps” sequence of THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN. 
The actual assault by the Tsar’s army on the Odessa protesters 
took no more than two or three minutes, the time needed for jack- 
booted feet to march down the steps from top to bottom. 
Onscreen the terror expands to five times this length. 


DURATION is a story's length through time. 

Location is the story’s physical dimension. What is the story’s 
specific geography? In what town? On what streets? What build¬ 
ings on those streets? What rooms inside those buildings? Up what 
mountain? Across what desert? A voyage to what planet? 

LOCATION is a story's place in space. 

Level of Conflict is the human dimension. A setting includes 
not only itsphysical and temporal domain, but social as well. This 
dimension becomes vertical in this sense: At what Level of Conflict 
do you pitch your telling? No matter how externalized in institutions 
or internalized in individuals, the political, economic, ideological, 
biological, and psychological forces of society shape events as much 
as period, landscape, or costume. Therefore, the cast of characters, 
containing its various levels of conflict, is part of a story’s setting. 

Does your story focus on the inner, even unconscious conflicts 
within your characters? Or coming up a level, on personal conflicts? 
Or higher and wider, on battles with institutions in society? Wider 
still, on struggles against forces of the environment? From the sub¬ 
conscious to the stars, through all the multilayered experiences of life, 
your story may be set at any one or any combination of these levels. 

LEVEL OF CONFLICT is the story's position on the hier¬ 
archy of human struggles. 

The Relationship Between Structure and Setting 

A story’s setting sharply defines and confines its possibilities. 

Although your setting is a fiction, not everything that comes to 
mind may be allowed to happen in it. Within any world, no matter 
how imaginary, only certain events are possible or probable. 

If your drama is set among the gated estates of West L.A., we 
won’t see homeowners protesting social injustice by rioting in their 
tree-lined streets, although they might throw a thousand-dollar-a- 
plate fund-raiser. If your setting is the housing projects of East 


L.A/s ghetto, these citizens won’t dine at thousand-dollar-a-plate 
galas, but they might hit the streets to demand change. 

A STORY must obey its own internal laws of probability. 

The event choices of the writer, therefore, are limited 
to the possibilities and probabilities within the world 
he creates. 

Each fictional world creates a unique cosmology and makes its 
own “rules” for how and why things happen within it. No matter 
how realistic or bizarre the setting, once its causal principles are 
established, they cannot change. In fact,- of all genres Fantasy is the 
most rigid and structurally conventional. We give the fantasy writer 
one great leap away from reality, then demand tight-knit probabili¬ 
ties and no coincidence—the strict Archplot of THE WIZARD OF 
OZ, for example. On the other hand, a gritty realism often allows 
leaps in logic. In THE USUAL SUSPECTS, for example, screen¬ 
writer Christopher McQuarrie arrests his wild improbabilities 
inside the “law” of free association. 

Stories do not materialize from a void but grow out of materials 
already in history and human experience. From its first glimpse of 
the first image, the audience inspects your fictional universe, 
sorting the possible from the impossible, the likely from the 
unlikely. Consciously and unconsciously, it wants to know your 
“laws,” to learn how and why things happen in your specific world. 
You create these possibilities and limitations through your personal 
choice of setting and the way you work within it. Having invented 
these strictures, you’re bound to a contract you must keep. For once 
the audience grasps the laws of your reality, it feels violated if you 
break them and rejects your work as illogical and unconvincing. 

Seen this way, the setting may feel like a straitjacket to the imag¬ 
ination. When working in development, I’m often struck by how 
writers try to wriggle out of its restraints by refusing to be specific. 
“What's your setting?” I’ll ask. “America,” the writer cheerfully 
answers. “Sounds a bit vast. Got any particular neighborhood in 
mind?” “Bob, it won't matter. This is your quintessential American 


story. It's about divorce. What could be more American? We can set 
it in Louisiana, New York, or Idaho. Won’t matter.” But it matters 
absolutely. Breakup in the Bayou bears litde resemblance to a multi- 
million-dollar Park Avenue litigation, and neither looks like infi¬ 
delity on a potato farm. There is no such thing as a portable story. 
An honest story is at home in one, and only one, place and time. 


Limitation is vital. The first step toward a well-told story is to create 
a small, knowable world. Artists by nature crave freedom, so the 
principle that the structure/setting relationship restricts creative 
choices may stir the rebel in you. With a closer look, however, 
you’ll see that this relationship couldn’t be more positive. The con¬ 
straint that setting imposes on story design doesn't inhibit cre¬ 
ativity; it inspires it. 

All fine stories take place within a limited, knowable world. No 
matter how grand a fictional world may seem, with a close look 
you’ll discover that it’s remarkably small. CRIME AND PUNISH¬ 
MENT is microscopic. WAR AND PEACE, although played against 
a landscape of Russia in turmoil, is the focused tale of a handful of 
characters and their interrelated families. DR. STRANGE LOVE is 
set in the office of General Jack D. Ripper, a Flying Fortress 
heading for Russia, and the War Room of the Pentagon. It climaxes 
in planetary nuclear annihilation, but the telling is limited to three 
sets and eight principal characters. 

The world of a story must be small enough that the mind of a 
single artist can surround the fictional universe it creates and come 
to know it in the same depth and detail that God knows the one He 
created. As my mother used to say, “Not a sparrow falls that God 
does not know." Not a sparrow should fall in the world of a writer 
that he wouldn’t know. By the time you finish your last draft, you 
must possess a commanding knowledge of your setting in such 
depth and detail that no one could raise a question about your 
world—from the eating habits of your characters to the weather in 
September—that you couldn’t answer instantly. 


A “small” world, however, does not mean a trivial world. Art 
consists of separating one tiny piece from the rest of the universe 
and holding it up in such a way that it appears to be the most 
important, fascinating thing of this moment. “Small,” in this case, 
means knowable. 

“Commanding knowledge” does not mean an extended awareness 
into every crevice of existence. It means knowledge of all that's ger¬ 
mane. This may seem an impossible ideal, but the best writers attain it 
every day. What relevant question about the time, place, and characters 
of CRIES AND WHISPERS would elude Ingmar Bergman? Or David 
Mamet of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS? Or John Cleese of A FISH 
CALLED WANDA? It’s not that fine artists give deliberate, conscious 
thought to each and every aspect of life implied by their stories, but 
at some level they absorb it all. Great writers know. Therefore, work 
within what’s knowable. A vast, populous world stretches the mind 
so thinly that knowledge must be superficial. A limited world and 
restricted cast offer the possibility of knowledge in depth and breadth. 

The irony of setting versus story is this: The larger the world, the 
more diluted the knowledge of the writer, therefore the fewer his creative 
choices and the more cliched the story. The smaller the world, the more 
complete the knowledge of the writer, therefore the greater his creative 
choices. Result: a fully original story and victory in the war on cliche. 


The key to winning this war is research, taking the time and effort 
to acquire knowledge. I suggest these specific methods: research of 
memory, research of imagination, research of fact. Generally, a 
story needs all three. 


Lean back from your desk and ask, “What do I know from personal 
experience that touches on my characters’ lives?” 

You're writing, let's say, about a middle-aged executive who faces 
a career-making/career-destroying presentation. His personal and 


professional life hangs in the balance. He’s afraid. How does fear 
feel? Slowly, memory takes you back to the day your mother, for rea¬ 
sons you’ll never understand, locked you in a closet, left the house, 
and didn’t come back until the next day. Bring back those long, 
fright-filled hours when the dark smothered you. Could your char¬ 
acter feel the same? If so, vividly describe your day and night in the 
closet. You may think you know, but you don’t know you know until 
you can write it down. Research is not daydreaming. Explore your 
past, relive it, then write it down. In your head it’s only memory, but 
written down it becomes working knowledge. Now with the bile of 
fear in your belly, write an honest, one-of-a-kind scene. 


Lean back and ask, “What would it be like to live my character's life 
hour by hour, day by day?” 

In vivid detail sketch how your characters shop, make love, 
pray—scenes that may or may not find their way into your story, 
but draw you into your imagined world until it feels like deja vu. 
While memory gives us whole chunks of life, imagination takes 
fragments, slivers of dream, and chips of experience that seem 
unrelated, then seeks their hidden connections and merges them 
into a whole. Having found these links and envisioned the scenes, 
write them down. A working imagination is research. 


Have you ever had writer’s block? Scary, isn’t it? Days drag by and 
nothing gets written. Cleaning the garage looks like fun. You 
rearrange your desk over and over and over until you think you’re 
losing your mind. I know a cure, but it isn’t a trip to your psychia¬ 
trist. It’s a trip to the library. 

You’re blocked because you have nothing to say. Your talent 
didn’t abandon you. If you had something to say, you couldn’t stop 
yourself from writing. You can’t kill your talent, but you can starve it 
into a coma through ignorance. For no matter how talented, the 


ignorant cannot write. Talent must be stimulated by facts and ideas. 
Do research. Feed your talent. Research not only wins the war on 
cliche, it's the key to victory over fear and its cousin, depression. 

Suppose, for example, you're writing in the genre of Domestic 
Drama. You were raised in a family, perhaps you’ve raised a family, 
you’ve seen families, you can imagine families. But if you were go to 
the library and read respected works on the dynamics of family life, 
two very important things would happen: 

1. Everything life has taught you would be powerfully 
confirmed. On page after page you’ll recognize your own 
family. This discovery, that your personal experience is 
universal, is critical. It means you’ll have an audience. 

You'll write in a singular way, but audiences everywhere 
will understand because the patterns of family are 
ubiquitous. What you’ve experienced in your domestic life 
is analogous to all others—the rivalries and alliances, 
loyalties and betrayals, pains and joys. As you express 
emotions you feel are yours and yours alone, each member 
of the audience will recognize them as his and his alone. 

2. No matter how many families you live in, how many you 
observe, or how vivid your imagination, your knowledge of 
the nature of family is limited to the finite circle of your 
experience. But as you take notes in the library, your solid, 
factual research will expand that circle globally. You’ll be 
struck by sudden and powerful insights and reach a depth 
of understanding you couldn't have gained any other way. 

Research from memory, imagination, and fact is often followed 
by a phenomenon that authors love to describe in mystical terms: 
Characters suddenly spring to life and of their own free will make 
choices and take actions that create Turning Points that twist, 
build, and turn again until the writer can hardly type fast enough to 
keep up with the outpourings. 

This “virgin birth” is a charming self-deception writers love to 
indulge in, but the sudden impression that the story is writing 


itself simply marks the moment when a writer’s knowledge of the 
subject has reached the saturation point. The writer becomes the 
god of his little universe and is amazed by what seems to be spon¬ 
taneous creation, but is in fact the reward for hard work. 

Be warned, however. While research provides material, it's no 
substitute for creativity. Biographical, psychological, physical, 
political, and historical research of the setting and cast is essential 
but pointless if it doesn’t lead to the creation of events. A story is 
not an accumulation of information strung into a narrative, but a 
design of events to carry us to a meaningful climax. 

What’s more, research must not become procrastination. Too 
many insecure talents spend years in study and never actually write 
anything. Research is meat to feed the beasts of imagination and 
invention, never an end in itself. Nor is there a necessary sequence 
to research. We do not first fill notebooks full of social, biograph¬ 
ical, and historical studies, and once all this work is done, begin to 
compose a story. Creativity is rarely so rational. Origination and 
exploration go on alternatively. 

Imagine writing a Psycho-Thriller. You begin perhaps with a 
“What if.. .” What would happen if a psychiatrist violated her profes¬ 
sional ethics and began an affair with her patient? Intrigued, you 
wonder, Who is this doctor? Patient? Perhaps he’s a soldier, shell¬ 
shocked, catatonic. Why does she fall for him? You analyze and 
explore until growing knowledge leads to wild speculation: Suppose 
she falls when her treatment seems to work a miracle: Under hyp¬ 
nosis his wide-eyed paralysis melts away to reveal a beautiful, almost 
angelic personality. 

That turn seems too sweet to be true, so you go on a hunt in 
the other direction, and deep in your studies you come across the 
concept of successful schizophrenia : Some psychotics possess such 
extreme intelligence and willpower they can easily hide their mad¬ 
ness from everyone around them, even their psychiatrists. Could 
your patient be one of these? Could your doctor be in love with a 
madman she thinks she’s cured? 

As new ideas seed your story, story and characters grow; as 
your story grows, questions are raised and it hungers for more 


research. Creation and investigation go back and forth, making 
demands on each other, pushing and pulling this way or that until 
the story shakes itself out, complete and alive. 


Fine writing is never one to one, never a matter of devising the exact 
number of events necessary to fill a story, then penciling in dialogue. 
Creativity is five to one, perhaps ten or twenty to one. The craft 
demands the invention of far more material than you can possibly use, 
then the astute selection from this quantity of quality events, moments 
of originality that are true to character and true to world. When actors 
compliment each other, for example, they often say, “I like your 
choices.” They know that if a colleague has arrived at a beautiful 
moment, it's because in rehearsal the actor tried it twenty different 
ways, then chose the one perfect moment. The same is true for us. 

CREATIVITY means creative choices of inclusion and 


Imagine writing a romantic comedy set on the East Side of 
Manhattan. Your thoughts meander back and forth between the 
separate lives of your characters, searching for that perfect moment 
when the lovers meet. Then sudden inspiration: “A singles bar! 
That’s it! They meet at P. J. Clarke’s!” And why not? Given the 
affluent New Yorkers of your imagining, meeting in a singles bar is 
certainly possible. Why not? Because it’s a dreadful cliche. It was a 
fresh idea when Dustin Hoffman met Mia Farrow in JOHN AND 
MARY, but since then, yuppie lovers have bumped into each other 
in a singles bar in film after film, soap operas, and sitcoms. 

But if you know the craft, you know how to cure cliches: Sketch 
a list of five, ten, fifteen different “East Side lovers meet” scenes. 
Why? Because experienced writers never trust so-called inspiration. 
More often than not, inspiration is the first idea picked off the top 
of your head, and sitting on the top of your head is every film 
you’ve ever seen, every novel you’ve ever read, offering cliches to 


pluck. This is why we fall in love with an idea on Monday, sleep on 
it, then reread it with disgust on Tuesday as we realize we’ve seen 
this cliche in a dozen other works. True inspiration comes from a 
deeper source, so let loose your imagination and experiment: 

1. Singles Bar. Cliche, but a choice. Don’t throw it away yet. 

2. Park Avenue. A tire blows out on his BMW. He stands at 
the curb, helpless in his three-piece suit. She comes along 
on her motorcycle and takes pity on him. She gets out the 
spare, and as she doctors the car, he plays nurse, handing 
her jack handle, lug nuts, wheel cover . . . until suddenly 
eyes meet and sparks fly. 

3. Toilet. She’s so drunk at the office Christmas party that she 
stumbles into the men’s room to throw up. He finds her col¬ 
lapsed on the floor. Quickly, before others enter, he locks 
the stall door and helps her through her illness. When the 
coast is clear he sneaks her out, saving her embarrassment. 

On and on the list grows. You needn’t write out these scenes in 
full. You’re on a search for ideas, so simply sketch the bold strokes 
of what happens. If you know your characters and world in depth, a 
dozen or more such scenes won’t be a difficult task. Once you’ve 
exhausted your best ideas, survey your list, asking these questions: 
Which scene is truest to my characters? Truest to their world? And 
has never been on the screen quite this way before? This is the one you 
write into the screenplay. 

Suppose, however, as you question the meeting-cute scenes on 
your list, deep in your gut you realize that, while all have their 
virtues, your first impression was right. Cliche or not, these lovers 
would meet in a singles bar; nothing could be more expressive of 
their natures and milieu. Now what do you do? Follow your instincts 
and start a new list: a dozen different ways to meet in a singles bar. 
Research this world, hang out, observe the crowd, get involved, until 
you know the singles bar scene like no writer before you. 

Scanning your new list you ask the same questions: Which 
variation is truest to character and world? Which has never been 


onscreen before? When your script becomes a film and the camera 
dollies toward a singles bar, the audience’s first reaction may be, 
“Oh man, not another singles bar scene.” But then you take them 
through the door, show them what really goes on in those meat 
racks. If you've done your task well, jaws will drop and heads will 
nod: “That’s right! It’s not ‘What’s your astrological sign? Read any 
good books lately?’ That's the embarrassment, danger. That's the 

If your finished screenplay contains every scene you’ve ever 
written, if you’ve never thrown an idea away, if your rewriting is 
little more than tinkering with dialogue, your work will almost cer¬ 
tainly fail. No matter our talent, we all know in the midnight of our 
souls that 90 percent of what we do is less than our best. If, how¬ 
ever, research inspires a pace of ten to one, even twenty to one, and 
if you then make brilliant choices to find that 10 percent of excel¬ 
lence and bum the rest, every scene will fascinate and the world 
will sit in awe of your genius. 

No one has to see your failures unless you add vanity to folly 
and exhibit them. Genius consists not only of the power to create 
expressive beats and scenes, but of the taste, judgment, and will to 
weed out and destroy banalities, conceits, false notes, and lies. 




Through tens of thousands of years of tales told at fireside, four 
millennia of the written word, twenty-five hundred years of theatre, 
a century of film, and eight decades of broadcasting, countless gen¬ 
erations of storytellers have spun story into an astonishing diversity 
of patterns. To make sense of this outpouring, various systems 
have been devised to sort stories according to shared elements, 
classifying them by genre. No two systems, however, have ever 
agreed on which story elements to use in the sorting, and, there¬ 
fore, no two agree on the number and kind of genres. 

Aristotle gave us the first genres by dividing dramas according 
to the value-charge of their ending versus their story design. A 
story, he noted, could end on either a positive or a negative charge. 
Then each of these two types could be either a Simple design 
(ending flat with no turning point or surprise) or a Complex design 
(climaxing around a major reversal in the protagonist’s life). The 
result is his four basic genres: Simple Tragic, Simple Fortunate, 
Complex Tragic, Complex Fortunate. 

Over the centuries, however, the lucidity of Aristotle was lost as 
genre systems became more and more blurred and bloated. Goethe 
listed seven types by subject matter—love, revenge, and so on. 
Schiller argued that there must be more but couldn’t name them. 
Polti inventoried no less than three dozen different emotions from 
which he deduced “Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations,” but his categories 



such as “An Involuntary Crime Committed for Love” or “Self-Sacrifice 
for an Ideal” are vague beyond use. The semiologist Metz reduced all 
film edits to eight possibilities he called “syntagmas,” then tried to 
schematize all of cinema inside “La Gran Syntagma,” but his effort to 
turn art into science crumbled like the Tower of Babel. 

The neo-Aristotelian critic Norman Friedman, on the other 
hand, developed a system that once again delineates genres by struc¬ 
ture and values. We’re indebted to Friedman for distinctions such as 
the Education Plot , Redemption Plot, and Disillusionment Plot —subtle 
forms in which story arcs at the level of inner conflict to bring about 
deep changes within the mind or moral nature of the protagonist. 

While scholars dispute definitions and systems, the audience is 
already a genre expert. It enters each film armed with a complex set 
of anticipations learned through a lifetime of moviegoing. The 
genre sophistication of filmgoers presents the writer with this crit¬ 
ical challenge: He must not only fulfill audience anticipations, or 
risk their confusion and disappointment, but he must lead their 
expectations to fresh, unexpected moments, or risk boring them. 
This two-handed trick is impossible without a knowledge of genre 
that surpasses the audience’s. 

Below is the genre and subgenre system used by screen¬ 
writers—a system that's evolved from practice, not theory, and that 
turns on differences of subject, setting, role, event, and values. 

1. LOVE STORY. Its subgenre, Buddy Salvation, substitutes 
friendship for romantic love: MEAN STREETS, PASSION 

2. HORROR FILM. This genre divides into three subgenres: 
the Uncanny, in which the source of horror is astounding 
but subject to “rational” explanation, such as beings from 
outer space, science-made monsters, or a maniac; the 
Supernatural, in which the source of horror is an 
“irrational” phenomenon from the spirit realm; and the 
Super-Uncanny, in which the audience is kept guessing 
between the other two possibilities—THE TENANT, 



3. MODERN EPIC (the individual versus the state): SPAR- 

4. WESTERN. The evolution of this genre and its subgenres is 
brilliantly traced in Will Wright’s Six Guns and Society. 

5. WAR GENRE. Although war is often the setting for another 
genre, such as the Love Story, the WAR GENRE is 
specifically about combat. Pro-war versus Antiwar are its 
primary subgenres. Contemporary films generally oppose 
war, but for decades the majority covertly glorified it, even 
in its most grisly form. 

6. MATURATION PLOT or the coming-of-age story: STAND 

7. REDEMPTION PLOT. Here the film arcs on a moral 
change within the protagonist from bad to good: THE 

8. PUNITIVE PLOT. In these the good guy turns bad and is 

9. TESTING PLOT. Stories of willpower versus temptation to 

10. EDUCATION PLOT. This genre arcs on a deep change within 
the protagonist’s view of life, people, or self from the negative 
(naive, distrustful, fatalistic, self-hating) to the positive (wise, 
trusting, optimistic, self-possessed): HAROLD AND 
n. DISILLUSIONMENT PLOT. A deep change of worldview 
from the positive to the negative: MRS. PARKER AND 



Some genres are mega-genres, so large and complex that 

they're filled with numerous subgenre variations: 

12. COMEDY. Subgenres range from Parody to Satire to 
Sitcom to Romantic to Screwball to Farce to Black 
Comedy, all differing by the focus of comic attack (bureau¬ 
cratic folly, upper-class manners, teenage courtship, etc.) 
and the degree of ridicule (gentle, caustic, lethal). 

13. CRIME. Subgenres vary chiefly by the answer to this ques¬ 
tion: From whose point of view do we regard the crime? 

Murder Mystery (master detective’s POV); Caper (master 
criminal's POV); Detective (cop's POV); Gangster (crook’s 
POV); Thriller or Revenge Tale (victim’s POV); Courtroom 
(lawyer’s POV); Newspaper (reporter’s POV); Espionage 
(spy's POV); Prison Drama (inmate’s POV); Film Noir 
(POV of a protagonist who may be part criminal, part 
detective, part victim of a femme fatale). 

14. SOCIAL DRAMA. This genre identifies problems in 
society—poverty, the education system, communicable dis¬ 
eases, the disadvantaged, antisocial rebellion, and the 

like—then constructs a story demonstrating a cure. It has a 
number of sharply focused subgenres: Domestic Drama 
(problems within the family), the Woman's Film 
(dilemmas such as career versus family, lover versus 
children), Political Drama (corruption in politics), Eco- 
Drama (battles to save the environment), Medical Drama 
(struggles with physical illness), and Psycho-Drama 
(struggles with mental illness). 

15. ACTION/ADVENTURE. This often borrows aspects from 
other genres such as War or Political Drama to use as 
motivation for explosive action and derring-do. If 
ACTION/ADVENTURE incorporates ideas such as destiny, 
hubris, or the spiritual, it becomes the subgenre High 
Adventure: THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING. If Mother 
Nature is the source of antagonism, it’s a Disaster/Survival 


Taking a still wider view, supra-genres are created out of set¬ 
tings, performance styles, or filmmaking techniques that contain a 
host of autonomous genres. They are like mansions of many 
rooms where one of the basic genres, subgenres, or any combina¬ 
tion might find a home: 

16 HISTORICAL DRAMA. History is an inexhaustible source of 
story material and embraces every type of story imaginable. 

The treasure chest of history, however, is sealed with this 
warning: What is past must be present. A screenwriter isn't a 
poet hoping to be discovered after he’s dead. He must find an 
audience today. Therefore, the best use of history, and the 
only legitimate excuse to set a film in the past and thereby add 
untold millions to the budget, is anachronism—to use the 
past as a clear glass through which you show us the present. 

Many contemporary antagonisms are so distressing or 
loaded with controversy that it’s difficult to dramatize them 
in a present-day setting without alienating the audience. 

Such dilemmas are often best viewed at a safe distance in 
time. HISTORICAL DRAMA polishes the past into a mirror 
of the present, making clear and bearable the painful prob¬ 
lems of racism in GLORY, religious strife in MICHAEL 
COLLINS, or violence of all kinds, especially against 
women, in UNFORGIVEN. 

Christopher Hampton’s DANGEROUS LIAISONS: 

Setting a down ending, love/hate story in the France of lace 
cuffs and piquant repartee seemed like protocol for 
commercial disaster. But the film found a huge audience 
by turning a scalding light on a mode of modern hostility 
too politically sensitive to be addressed directly: courtship 
as combat. Hampton stepped back two centuries to an age 
in which sexual politics exploded into a war for sexual 
supremacy, where the ascendant emotion was not love but 
fear and suspicion of the opposite sex. Despite the antiquated 
setting, within minutes the audience felt intimately at 
home with its corrupted aristocrats—they are us. 

8 4 


17. BIOGRAPHY. This cousin to Historical Drama focuses on a 
person rather than an era. BIOGRAPHY, however, must 
never become a simple chronicle. That someone lived, died, 
and did interesting things in between is of scholarly 
interest and no more. The biographer must interpret facts 
as if they were fiction, find the meaning of the subject’s 
life, and then cast him as the protagonist of his life’s genre: 
YOUNG MR. LINCOLN defends the innocent in a Court¬ 
room Drama; GANDHI becomes the hero of a Modern 
Epic; ISADORA succumbs to a Disillusionment Plot; 
NIXON suffers in a Punitive Plot. 

These caveats apply equally to the subgenre 
Autobiography. This idiom is popular with filmmakers 
who feel that they should write a film about a subject they 
know. And rightly so. But autobiographical films often lack 
the very virtue they promise: self-knowledge. For while it’s 
true that the unexamined life is not worth living, it’s also 
the case that the unlived life isn’t worth examining. BIG 
WEDNESDAY, for example. 

18. DOCU-DRAMA. A second cousin to Historical Drama, 
DOCU-DRAMA centers on recent rather than past events. 
Once invigorated by cinema verite—BATTLE OF 
ALGIERS—it’s become a popular TV genre, sometimes 
powerful, but often with little documentary value. 

19. MOCKUMENTARY. This genre pretends to be rooted in 
actuality or memory, behaves like documentary or 
autobiography, but is utter fiction. It subverts fact-based 
filmmaking to satirize hypocritical institutions: the 
backstage world of rock ’n’ roll in THIS IS SPINAL TAP; 
the Catholic Church in ROMA; middle-class mores in 
ZELIG; TV journalism in MAN BITES DOG; politics in 
BOB ROBERTS; crass American values in TO DIE FOR. 

20. MUSICAL. Descended from opera, this genre presents a 
“reality” in which characters sing and dance their stories. 
It’s often a Love Story, but it can be Film Noir: the stage 
adaptation of SUNSET BOULEVARD; Social Drama: 


Biography: EVITA. Indeed, any genre can work in musical 
form and all can be satirized in Musical Comedy. 

21. SCIENCE FICTION. In hypothetical futures that are typically 
technological dystopias of tyranny and chaos, the SCIENCE 
FICTION writer often marries the man-against-state 
Modern Epic with Action/Adventure: the STAR WARS 
trilogy and TOTAL RECALL. But, like history, the future is 
a setting in which any genre may play. In SOLARIS, for 
example, Andrei Tarkovsky used sci-fi to act out the inner 
conflicts of a Disillusionment Plot. 

22. SPORTS GENRE. Sport is a crucible for character change. 
This genre is a natural home for the Maturation Plot: 
NORTH DALLAS FORTY; the Redemption Plot: SOME¬ 
BODY UP THERE LIKES ME; the Education Plot: BULL 
DURHAM; the Punitive Plot: RAGING BULL; the Testing 
Plot: CHARIOTS OF FIRE; the Disillusionment Plot: THE 
Buddy Salvation: WHITE MEN CAN T JUMP; Social 

23. FANTASY. Here the writer plays with time, space, and the 
physical, bending and mixing the laws of nature and the 
supernatural. The extra-realities of FANTASY attract the 
Action genres but also welcome others such as the Love 
Story: SOMEWHERE IN TIME; Political Drama/ 

Allegory: ANIMAL FARM; Social Drama: IF ... ; 
Maturation Plot: ALICE IN WONDERLAND. 

24. ANIMATION. Here the law of universal metamorphism 
rules: Anything can become something else. Like Fantasy 
and Science Fiction, ANIMATION leans toward the Action 
genres of cartoon Farce: BUGS BUNNY; or High 
SUBMARINE; and because the youth audience is its natural 
market, many Maturation Plots: THE LION KING, THE 
LITTLE MERMAID; but as the animators of Eastern Europe 
and Japan have shown, there are no restraints. 


Lastly, for those who believe that genres and their conventions 
are concerns of “commercial” writers only, and that serious art is 
nongeneric, let me add one last name to the list: 

25. ART FILM. The avant-garde notion of writing outside the 
genres is naive. No one writes in a vacuum. After thousands 
of years of storytelling no story is so different that it has no 
similarity to anything else ever written. The ART FILM has 
become a traditional genre, divisible into two subgenres, 
Minimalism and Antistructure, each with its own complex 
of formal conventions of structure and cosmology. Like 
Historical Drama, the ART FILM is a supra-genre that 
embraces other basic genres: Love Story, Political Drama, 
and the like. 

Although this slate is reasonably comprehensive, no list can 
ever be definitive or exhaustive because the lines between genres 
often overlap as they influence and merge with one another. 
Genres are not static or rigid, but evolving and flexible, yet firm 
and stable enough to be identified and worked with, much as a 
composer plays with the malleable movements of musical genres. 

Each writer’s homework is first to identify his genre, then 
research its governing practices. And there’s no escaping these 
tasks. We’re all genre writers. 


Each genre imposes conventions on story design: conventional value- 
charges at climax such as the down-ending of the Disillusionment 
Plot; conventional settings such as the Western; conventional events 
such as boy-meets-girl in the Love Story; conventional roles such as 
the criminal in a Crime Story. The audience knows these conventions 
and expects to see them fulfilled. Consequently, the choice of genre 
sharply determines and limits what’s possible within a story, as its 
design must envision the audience’s knowledge and anticipations. 


GENRE CONVENTIONS are specific settings, roles, events, 
and values that define individual genres and their sub¬ 

Each genre has unique conventions, but in some these are rela¬ 
tively uncomplicated and pliable. The primary convention of the Disil¬ 
lusionment Plot is a protagonist who opens the story filled with 
optimism, who holds high ideals or beliefs, whose view of life is posi¬ 
tive. Its second convention is a pattern of repeatedly negative story 
turns that may at first raise his hopes, but ultimately poison his dreams 
and values, leaving him deeply cynical and disillusioned. The protago¬ 
nist of THE CONVERSATION, for example, begins with an orderly, 
secure hold on life and ends in a paranoid nightmare. This simple set 
of conventions offers uncountable possibilities, for life knows a thou¬ 
sand paths to hopelessness. Among the many memorable films in this 

Other genres are relatively inflexible and filled with a complex 
of rigid conventions. In the Crime Genre there must be a crime; it 
must happen early in the telling. There must be a detective char¬ 
acter, professional or amateur, who discovers clues and suspects. 
In the Thriller the criminal must “make it personal.” Although the 
story may start with a cop who works for a paycheck, to deepen the 
drama, at some point, the criminal goes over the line. Cliches grow 
like fungus around this convention: The criminal menaces the 
family of the cop or turns the cop himself into a suspect; or, cliche 
of cliches with roots back to THE MALTESE FALCON, he kills the 
detective's partner. Ultimately, the cop must identify, apprehend, 
and punish the criminal. 

Comedy contains myriad subgenres as well, each with its own 
conventions, but one overriding convention unites this mega-genre 
and distinguishes it from drama: Nobody gets hurt. In Comedy, the 
audience must feel that no matter how characters bounce off walls, 
no matter how they scream and writhe under the whips of life, it 
doesn't really hurt. Buildings may fall on Laurel and Hardy, but 
they get up out of the rubble, dust themselves off, mutter, “Now, 
what a fine mess . . .” and on they go. 


In A FISH CALLED WANDA Ken (Michael Palin), a character 
with an obsessive love of animals, tries to kill an old lady but acci¬ 
dentally kills her pet terriers instead. The last dog dies under a mas¬ 
sive construction block with his little paw left sticking out. Charles 
Crichton, the director, shot two versions of this moment: one 
showing only the paw, but for the second he sent to a butcher's shop 
for a bag of entrails and added a trail of gore draining away from the 
squashed terrier. When this gory image flashed in front of preview 
audiences, the theatre fell dead quiet. The blood and guts said: “It 
hurt.” For general release Crichton switched to the sanitized shot 
and got his laugh. By genre convention, the comedy writer walks the 
line between putting characters through the torments of hell while 
safely reassuring the audience that the flames don’t really bum. 

Across that line waits the subgenre of Black Comedy. Here the 
writer bends comic convention and allows his audience to feel sharp, 
but not unbearable, pain: THE LOVED ONE, THE WAR OF THE 
ROSES, PRIZZI’S HONOR—films in which laughter often chokes us. 

Art Films are conventionalized by a number of external prac¬ 
tices such as the absence of stars (or stars’ salaries), production out¬ 
side the Hollywood system, generally in a language other than 
English—all of which become sales points as the marketing team 
encourages critics to champion the film as an underdog. Its pri¬ 
mary internal conventions are, first, a celebration of the cerebral. 
The Art Film favors the intellect by smothering strong emotion 
under a blanket of mood, while through enigma, symbolism, or 
unresolved tensions it invites interpretation and analysis in the 
postfilm ritual of cafe criticism. Secondly and essentially, the story 
design of an Art Film depends on one grand convention: unconven¬ 
tionality. Minimalist and/or Antistructure unconventionality is the 
Art Film’s distinguishing convention. 

Success in the Art Film genre usually results in instant, though 
often temporary, recognition as an artist. On the other hand, the 
durable Alfred Hitchcock worked solely within the Archplot and 
genre convention, always aimed for a mass audience, and habitu¬ 
ally found it. Yet today he stands atop the pantheon of filmmakers, 
worshipped worldwide as one of the century’s major artists, a film 


poet whose works resonate with sublime images of sexuality, reli¬ 
giosity, and subtleties of point of view. Hitchcock knew that there is 
no necessary contradiction between art and popular success , nor a neces¬ 
sary connection between art and Art Film. 


Each of us owes an enormous debt to the great story traditions. You 
must not only respect but master your genre and its conventions. 
Never assume that because you’ve seen films in your genre you 
know it. This is like assuming you could compose a symphony 
because you have heard all nine of Beethoven’s. You must study 
the form. Books of genre criticism may help, but few are current 
and none is complete. Read everything, nonetheless, for we need 
all possible help from wherever we can get it. The most valuable 
insights, however, come from self-discovery; nothing ignites the 
imagination like the unearthing of buried treasure. 

Genre study is best done in this fashion: First, list all those works 
you feel are like yours, both successes and failures. (The study of fail¬ 
ures is illuminating .. . and humbling.) Next, rent the films on video 
and purchase the screenplays if possible. Then study the films stop 
and go, turning pages with the screen, breaking each film down into 
elements of setting, role, event, and value. Lastly, stack, so to speak, 
these analyses one atop the other and look down through them all 
asking: What do the stories in my genre always do? What are its con¬ 
ventions of time, place, character, and action? Until you discover 
answers, the audience will always be ahead of you. 

To anticipate the anticipations of the audience you must 

master your genre and its conventions. 

If a film has been properly promoted, the audience arrives 
filled with expectancy. In the jargon of marketing pros, it’s been 
“positioned.” “Positioning the audience” means this: We don’t 
want people coming to our work cold and vague, not knowing what 
to expect, forcing us to spend the first twenty minutes of screen- 


time clueing them toward the necessary story attitude. We want 
them to settle into their seats, warm and focused with an appetite 
we intend to satisfy. 

Positioning of the audience is nothing new. Shakespeare didn't 
call his play Hamlet; he called it The Tragedy of Hamlet , Prince of Den¬ 
mark. He gave comedies titles such as Much Ado About Nothing and 
All's Well That Ends Well , so that each afternoon at the Globe Theatre 
his Elizabethan audience was psychologically set to cry or laugh. 

Skillful marketing creates genre expectation. From the title to 
the poster through print and TV ads, promotion seeks to fix the 
type of story in the mind of the audience. Having told our film- 
goers to expect a favorite form, we must deliver as promised. If we 
botch genre by omitting or misusing conventions, the audience 
knows instantly and badmouths our work. 

For example, the marketing of the unfortunately titled MIKE'S 
MURDER (USA/1984) positioned the audience to a Murder 
Mystery. The film, however, is in another genre, and for over an 
hour the audience sat wondering, “Who the hell dies in this 
movie?” The screenplay is a fresh take on the Maturation Plot as it 
arcs Debra Winger's bank teller from dependency and immaturity 
to self-possession and maturity. But the sour word-of-mouth of a 
mispositioned and confused audience cut the “legs” out from 
under an otherwise good film. 


Robert Frost said that writing free verse is like playing tennis with 
the net down, for it’s the self-imposed, indeed artificial demands of 
poetic conventions that stir the imagination. Let's say a poet arbi¬ 
trarily imposes this limit: He decides to write in six-line stanzas, 
rhyming every other line. After rhyming the fourth line with the 
second line he reaches the end of a stanza. Backed into this corner, 
his struggle to rhyme the sixth line with the fourth and second may 
inspire him to imagine a word that has no relationship to his poem 
whatsoever—it just happens to rhyme—but this random word 
then springs loose a phrase that in turn brings an image to mind, 


an image that in turn resonates back through the first five lines, 
triggering a whole new sense and feeling, twisting and driving the 
poem to a richer meaning and emotion. Thanks to the poet’s Cre¬ 
ative Limitation of this rhyme scheme, the poem achieves an inten¬ 
sity it would have lacked had the poet allowed himself the freedom 
to choose any word he wished. 

The principle of Creative Limitation calls for freedom within a 
circle of obstacles. Talent is like a muscle: without something to 
push against, it atrophies. So we deliberately put rocks in our path, 
barriers that inspire. We discipline ourselves as to what to do, while 
we’re boundless as to how to do it. One of our first steps, therefore, 
is to identify the genre or combination of genres that govern our 
work, for the stony ground that grows the most fruitful ideas is 
genre convention. 

Genre conventions are the rhyme scheme of a storyteller’s 
“poem.” They do not inhibit creativity, they inspire it. The chal¬ 
lenge is to keep convention but avoid cliche. That boy meets girl in 
a Love Story is not a cliche but a necessary element of form—a con¬ 
vention. The cliche is that they meet as Love Story lovers have 
always met: Two dynamic individualists are forced to share an 
adventure and seem to hate each other on sight; or two shy souls, 
each carrying the torch for someone who won’t give them the time 
of day, find themselves shunted to the edge of a party with no one 
else to talk to, and so on. 

Genre convention is a Creative Limitation that forces the writer’s 
imagination to rise to the occasion. Rather than deny convention 
and flatten the story, the fine writer calls on conventions like old 
friends, knowing that in the struggle to fulfill them in a unique way, 
he may find inspiration for the scene that will lift his story above the 
ordinary. With mastery of genre we can guide audiences through 
rich, creative variations on convention to reshape and exceed expec¬ 
tations by giving the audience not only what it had hoped for but, if 
we’re very good, more than it could have imagined. 

Consider Action/Adventure. Often dismissed as mindless fare, 
it is in fact the single most difficult genre in which to write today 
. . . simply because it’s been done to death. What is an Action writer 


to do that the audience hasn't seen a thousand times before? For 
example, chief among its many conventions is this scene: The hero 
is at the mercy of the villain. The hero, from a position of helpless¬ 
ness, must turn the tables on the villain. This scene is imperative. 
It tests and expresses in absolute terms the protagonist’s ingenuity, 
strength of will, and cool under pressure. Without it both the pro¬ 
tagonist and his story are diminished; the audience leaves dissatis¬ 
fied. Cliches grow on this convention like mold on bread, but when 
its solution is fresh, the telling is much enhanced. 

In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Indiana Jones comes face to 
face with an Egyptian giant wielding a massive scimitar. A look of 
terror, then a shrug and a quick bullet as Jones remembers he is 
carrying a gun. The behind-the-screen legend is that Harrison Ford 
suggested this much-loved solution because he was too sick with 
dysentery to take on the acrobatic fight Lawrence Kasdan had 

DIE HARD climaxes around this graceful execution of the con¬ 
vention: John McClane (Bruce Willis), stripped to the waist, 
weaponless, his hands in the air, is face to face with the sadistic 
and well-armed Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). Slowly, however, as 
the camera tracks around McClane we discover that he’s duct-taped 
a gun to his naked back. He distracts Gruber with a joke, snatches 
the gun from his back, and kills him. 

Of all the hero-at-the-mercy-of-the-villain cliches, “Look out! 
There's somebody behind you!” is the most archaic. But in MID¬ 
NIGHT RUN screenwriter George Gallo gave it new life and 
delight by riffmg lunatic variations in scene after scene. 


Genres are frequently combined to resonate with meaning, to 
enrich character, and to create varieties of mood and emotion. A 
Love Story subplot, for example, finds its way inside almost any 
Crime Story. THE FISHER KING wove five threads— Redemption 
Plot, Psycho-Drama , Love Story , Social Drama, Comedy —into an 
excellent film. The Musical Horror Film was a delicious invention. 
Given over two dozen principal genres, possibilities for inventive 


cross-breeding are endless. In this way the writer in command of 
genre may create a type of film the world has never seen. 


Equally, mastery of genre keeps the screenwriter contemporary. For 
the genre conventions are not carved in stone; they evolve, grow, 
adapt, modify, and break apace with the changes in society. Society 
changes slowly, but it does change, and as society enters each new 
phase, the genres transform with it. For genres are simply windows 
on reality, various ways for the writer to look at life. When the reality 
outside the window undergoes change, the genres alter with it. If not, 
if a genre becomes inflexible and cannot bend with the changing 
world, it petrifies. Below are three examples of genre evolution. 

The Western 

The Western began as morality plays set in the “Old West,” a mythical 
golden age for allegories of good versus evil. But in the cynical atmos¬ 
phere of the 1970s the genre became dated and stale. When Mel 
Brooks's BLAZING SADDLES exposed the Western’s fascist heart, the 
genre went into virtual hibernation for twenty years before making a 
comeback by altering its conventions. In the 1980s the Western modu¬ 
lated into quasi- Social Drama , a corrective to racism and violence: 

The Psycho-Drama 

Clinical insanity was first dramatized in the UFA silent THE CAB¬ 
INET OF DR. CALIGARI (Germany/1919). As psychoanalysis grew 
in reputation, Psycho-Drama developed as a kind of a Freudian 
detective story. In its first stage, a psychiatrist played “detective” to 
investigate a hidden “crime,” a deeply repressed trauma his patient 
has suffered in the past. Once the psychiatrist exposed this “crime,” 
the victim was either restored to sanity or took a major step toward 



However, as the serial killer began to haunt society’s night¬ 
mares, genre evolution took Psycho-Drama to its second stage, 
merging it with the Detective Genre into the subgenre known as the 
Psycho-Thriller. In these cops became lay psychiatrists to hunt down 
psychopaths, and apprehension hinged on the detective’s psycho¬ 
analysis of the madman: THE FIRST DEADLY SIN, MAN- 
HUNTER, COP, and, recently, SEVEN. 

In the 1980s the Psycho-Thriller evolved a third time. In films 
THE MORNING AFTER, the detective himself became the psycho, 
suffering from a wide variety of modern maladies—sexual obses¬ 
sion, suicidal impulse, traumatic amnesia, alcoholism. In these 
films the key to justice became the cop’s psychoanalysis of himself. 
Once the detective came to terms with his inner demons, appre¬ 
hending the criminal was almost an afterthought. 

This evolution was a telling statement about our changing 
society. Gone was the day when we could comfort ourselves with 
the notion that all the crazy people were locked up, while we sane 
people were safely outside the asylum walls. Few of us are so naive 
today. We know that, given a certain conjunction of events, we too 
could part company with reality. These Psycho-Thrillers spoke to this 
threat, to our realization that our toughest task in life is self- 
analysis as we try to fathom our humanity and bring peace to the 
wars within. 

By 1990 the genre reached its fourth stage by relocating the 
psychopath once again, now placing him in your spouse, psychia¬ 
trist, surgeon, child, nanny, roommate, neighborhood cop. These 
films tap communal paranoia, as we discover that the people most 
intimate in our lives, people we must trust, those we hope will pro¬ 
tect us, are maniacs: THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, 
Most telling of all perhaps is DEAD RINGERS, a film about the 
ultimate fear: the fear of the person closest to you—yourself. 


What horror will crawl up from your unconscious to steal your 

The Love Story 

The most important question we ask when writing a Love Story is: 
“What's to stop them?” For where’s the story in a Love Story ? Two 
people meet, fall in love, marry, raise a family, support each other 
till death do them part . . . what could be more boring than that? 
So, for over two thousand years, since the Greek dramatist 
Menander, writers answered the question with “the parents of the 
girl.” Her parents find the young man unsuitable and become the 
convention known as Blocking Characters or “the force opposed to 
love.” Shakespeare expanded it to both sets of parents in Romeo and 
Juliet. From 2300 b.c. this essential convention went unchanged 
. . . until the twentieth century launched the romantic revolution. 

The twentieth century has been an Age of Romance like no 
other. The idea of romantic love (with sex as its implicit partner) 
dominates popular music, advertising, and Western culture in gen¬ 
eral. Over the decades, the automobile, telephone, and a thousand 
other liberating factors have given young lovers greater and greater 
freedom from parental control. Meanwhile, parents, thanks to the 
rampant rise in adultery, divorce, and remarriage, have extended 
romance from a youthful fling to a lifelong pursuit. It’s always 
been the case that young people don’t listen to their parents, but 
today, if a movie Mom and Dad were to object, and the teenage 
lovers were actually to obey them, the audience would blister the 
screen with jeers. So, as the-parents-of-the-girl convention faded 
along with arranged marriages, resourceful writers unearthed a 
new and amazing array of forces that oppose love. 

In THE GRADUATE the Blocking Characters were the conven¬ 
tional parents of the girl but for a very unconventional reason. In 
WITNESS the force that opposes love is her culture—she’s Amish, 
virtually from another world. In MRS. SOFFEL, Mel Gibson plays 
an imprisoned murderer condemned to hang and Diane Keaton is 
the wife of the prison’s warden. What is to stop them? All mem- 


bers of “right-thinking” society. In WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, 
the lovers suffer from the absurd belief that friendship and love are 
incompatible. In LONE STAR, the blocking force is racism; in THE 
CRYING GAME, sexual identity; in GHOST, death. 

The enthusiasm for romance that opened this century has 
turned at its close to deep malaise that brings with it a dark, skep¬ 
tical attitude toward love. In response, we've seen the rise and sur¬ 
prising popularity of down-endings: DANGEROUS LIAISONS, 
Ben’s a suicidal alcoholic, Sera’s a masochistic prostitute, and their 
love is “star-crossed.” These films speak to a growing sense of the 
hopelessness, if not impossibility, of a lasting love. 

To achieve an up-ending some recent films have retooled the 
genre into the Longing Story. Boy-meets-girl has always been an 
irreducible convention that occurs early in the telling, to be fol¬ 
lowed by the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of love. But SLEEP¬ 
LESS IN SEATTLE and RED end on boy-meets-girl. The audience 
waits to see how the lovers’ “fate” will be shaped in the hands of 
chance. By cleverly delaying the lovers’ meeting to climax, these 
films avoid the prickly issues of modern love by replacing the diffi¬ 
culty of love with the difficulty of meeting. These aren’t love stories 
but stories of longing, as talk about and desire for love fills the 
scenes, leaving genuine acts of love and their often troubling con¬ 
sequences to happen in an offscreen future. It may be that the 
twentieth century gave birth to, then buried, the Age of Romance. 

The lesson is this: Social attitudes change. The cultural antenna 
of the writer must be alert to these movements or risk writing an 
antique. For example: In FALLING IN LOVE the force that opposes 
love is that the lovers are each married to someone else. The only 
tears in the audience came from yawning too hard. One could 
almost hear their thoughts screaming, “What’s your problem? 
You’re married to stiffs. Dump them. Does the word ‘divorce’ 
mean anything to you people?” 

Through the 1950s, however, a love affair across marriages was 
seen as a painful betrayal. Many poignant films—STRANGERS 


WHEN WE MEET, BRIEF ENCOUNTER—drew their energy from 
society's antagonism to adultery. But by the 1980s attitudes had 
shifted, giving rise to the feeling that romance is so precious and 
life so short, if two married people want to have an affair, let them. 
Right or wrong, that was the temperament of the time, so that a 
film with antiquated 1950s values brutally bored the 1980s audi¬ 
ence. The audience wants to know how it feels to be alive on the 
knife edge of the now. What does it mean to be a human being 

Innovative writers are not only contemporary, they are 
visionary. They have their ear to the wall of history, and as things 
change, they can sense the way society is leaning toward the future. 
They then produce works that break convention and take the 
genres into their next generation. 

This, for example, is one of the many beauties of CHINA¬ 
TOWN. In the climax of all previous Murder Mysteries the detective 
apprehends and punishes the criminal, but CHINATOWN’S 
wealthy and politically powerful killer gets away with it, breaking 
an honored convention. This film could not have been made, how¬ 
ever, until the 1970s when the civil rights movement, Watergate, 
and the Vietnam War woke America up to the depth of its corrup¬ 
tion and the nation realized that indeed the rich were getting away 
with murder . . . and much more. CHINATOWN rewrote the 
genre, opening the door to down-ending crime stories such as 

The finest writers are not only visionary, they create classics. 
Each genre involves crucial human values: love/hate, peace/war, 
justice/injustice, achievement/failure, good/evil, and the like. Each 
of these values is an ageless theme that has inspired great writing 
since the dawn of story. From year to year these values must be 
reworked to keep them alive and meaningful for the contemporary 
audience. Yet the greatest stories are always contemporary. They 
are classics. A classic is reexperienced with pleasure because it can 
be reinterpreted through the decades, because in it truth and 
humanity are so abundant that each new generation finds itself 


mirrored in the story. CHINATOWN is such a work. With an 
absolute command of genre Towne and Polanski took their talents 
to a height few have reached before or since. 


Mastery of genre is essential for yet one more reason: Screen¬ 
writing is not for sprinters, but for long-distance runners. No 
matter what you’ve heard about scripts dashed off over a weekend 
at poolside, from first inspiration to last polished draft, a quality 
screenplay consumes six months, nine months, a year, or more. 
Writing a film demands the same creative labor in terms of world, 
character, and story as a four-hundred-page novel. The only sub¬ 
stantive difference is the number of words used in the telling. A 
screenplay’s painstaking economy of language demands sweat and 
time, while the freedom to fill pages with prose often makes the 
task easier, even faster. All writing is discipline, but screenwriting 
is a drill sergeant. Ask yourself, therefore, what will keep your 
desire burning over those many months? 

Generally, great writers are not eclectic. Each tightly focuses his 
oeuvre on one idea, a single subject that ignites his passion, a sub¬ 
ject he pursues with beautiful variation through a lifetime of work. 
Hemingway, for example, was fascinated with the question of how 
to face death. After he witnessed the suicide of his father, it became 
the central theme, not only of his writing, but of his life. He chased 
death in war, in sport, on safari, until finally, putting a shotgun in 
his mouth, he found it. Charles Dickens, whose father was impris¬ 
oned for debt, wrote of the lonely child searching for the lost father 
over and over in David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and Great Expecta¬ 
tions. Moliere turned a critical eye on the idiocy and depravity of 
seventeenth-century France and made a career writing plays whose 
titles read like a checklist of human vices: The Miser, The Misan¬ 
thrope, The Hypochondriac. Each of these authors found his subject 
and it sustained him over the long journey of the writer. 

What is yours? Do you, like Hemingway and Dickens, work 
directly from the life you’ve lived? Or, like Moliere, do you write 


about your ideas of society and human nature? Whatever your 
source of inspiration, beware of this: Long before you finish, the 
love of self will rot and die, the love of ideas sicken and perish. 
You’ll become so tired and bored with writing about yourself or 
your ideas, you may not finish the race. 

So, in addition, ask: What’s my favorite genre? Then write in 
the genre you love. For although the passion for an idea or experi¬ 
ence may wither, the love of the movies is forever. Genre should be 
a constant source of reinspiration. Every time you reread your 
script, it should excite you, for this is your kind of story, the kind of 
film you'd stand in line in the rain to see. Do not write something 
because intellectual friends think it’s socially important. Do not 
write something you think will inspire critical praise in Film Quar¬ 
terly. Be honest in your choice of genre, for of all the reasons for 
wanting to write, the only one that nurtures us through time is love 
of the work itself. 


Plot or character? Which is more important? This debate is as old 
as the art. Aristotle weighed each side and concluded that story is 
primary, character secondary. His view held sway until, with the 
evolution of the novel, the pendulum of opinion swung the other 
way. By the nineteenth century many held that structure is merely 
an appliance designed to display personality, that what the reader 
wants is fascinating, complex characters. Today both sides continue 
the debate without a verdict. The reason for the hung jury is 
simple: The argument is specious. 

We cannot ask which is more important, structure or character, 
because structure is character; character is structure. They’re the 
same thing, and therefore one cannot be more important than the 
other. Yet the argument goes on because of a widely held confusion 
over two crucial aspects of the fictional role—the difference 
between Character and Characterization. 


Characterization is the sum of all observable qualities of a human 
being, everything knowable through careful scrutiny: age and IQ; sex 
and sexuality; style of speech and gesture; choices of home, car, and 
dress; education and occupation; personality and nervosity; values 
and attitudes—all aspects of humanity we could know by taking 
notes on someone day in and day out. The totality of these traits 


makes each person unique because each of us is a one-of-a-kind com¬ 
bination of genetic givens and accumulated experience. This singular 
assemblage of traits is characterization .. . but it is not character. 

TRUE CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human 
being makes under pressure—the greater the pressure, 
the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the 
character's essential nature. 

Beneath the surface of characterization, regardless of appear¬ 
ances, who is this person? At the heart of his humanity, what will 
we find? Is he loving or cruel? Generous or selfish? Strong or 
weak? Truthful or a liar? Courageous or cowardly? The only way to 
know the truth is to witness him make choices under pressure to 
take one action or another in the pursuit of his desire. As he 
chooses, he is. 

Pressure is essential. Choices made when nothing is at risk 
mean little. If a character chooses to tell the truth in a situation 
where telling a lie would gain him nothing, the choice is trivial, the 
moment expresses nothing. But if the same character insists on 
telling the truth when a lie would save his life, then we sense that 
honesty is at the core of his nature. 

Consider this scene: Two cars motor down a highway. One is a 
rusted-out station wagon with buckets, mops, and brooms in the 
back. Driving it is an illegal alien—a quiet, shy woman working as 
a domestic for under-the-table cash, sole support of her family. 
Alongside her is a glistening new Porsche driven by a brilliant and 
wealthy neurosurgeon. Two people who have utterly different back¬ 
grounds, beliefs, personalities, languages—in every way imagin¬ 
able their characterizations are the opposite of each other. 

Suddenly, in front of them, a school bus full of children flips 
out of control, smashes against an underpass, bursting into flames, 
trapping the children inside. Now, under this terrible pressure, 
we’ll find out who these two people really are. 

Who chooses to stop? Who chooses to drive by? Each has ratio¬ 
nalizations for driving by. The domestic worries that if she gets 


caught up in this, the police might question her, find out she’s an 
illegal, throw her back across the border, and her family will starve. 
The surgeon fears that if he’s injured and his hands burned, hands 
that perform miraculous microsurgeries, the lives of thousands of 
future patients will be lost. But let’s say they both hit the brakes 
and stop. 

This choice gives us a clue to character, but who’s stopping to 
help, and who’s become too hysterical to drive any farther? Let’s say 
they both choose to help. This tells us more. But who chooses to 
help by calling for an ambulance and waiting? Who chooses to help 
by dashing into the burning bus? Let’s say they both rush for the 
bus—a choice that reveals character in even greater depth. 

Now doctor and housekeeper smash windows, crawl inside the 
blazing bus, grab screaming children, and push them to safety. But 
their choices aren’t over. Soon the flames surge into a blistering 
inferno, skin peels from their faces. They can’t take another breath 
without searing their lungs. In the midst of this horror each real¬ 
izes there's only a second left to rescue one of the many children 
still inside. How does the doctor react? In a sudden reflex does he 
reach for a white child or the black child closer to him? Which way 
do the housekeeper’s instincts take her? Does she save the little 
boy? Or the little girl cowering at her feet? How does she make 
“Sophie’s choice”? 

We may discover that deep within these utterly different char¬ 
acterizations is an identical humanity—both willing to give their 
lives in a heartbeat for strangers. Or it may turn out that the person 
we thought would act heroically is a coward. Or the one we thought 
would act cowardly is a hero. Or at rock bottom, we may discover 
that selfless heroism is not the limit of true character in either of 
them. For the unseen power of their acculturation may force each 
to a spontaneous choice that exposes unconscious prejudices of 
gender or ethnicity . . . even while they are performing acts of 
saintlike courage. Whichever way the scene’s written, choice under 
pressure will strip away the mask of characterization, we’ll peer 
into their inner natures and with a flash of insight grasp their true 



The revelation of true character in contrast or contradiction to char¬ 
acterization is fundamental to all fine storytelling. Life teaches this 
grand principle: What seems is not what is. People are not what they 
appear to be. A hidden nature waits concealed behind a facade of 
traits. No matter what they say, no matter how they comport them¬ 
selves, the only way we ever come to know characters in depth is 
through their choices under pressure. 

If we're introduced to a character whose demeanor is “loving 
husband,” and by the end of the tale he's still what he first 
appeared to be, a loving husband with no secrets, no unfulfilled 
dreams, no hidden passions, we’ll be very disappointed. When 
characterization and true character match, when inner life and 
outer appearance are, like a block of cement, of one substance, the 
role becomes a list of repetitious, predictable behaviors. It's not as 
if such a character isn’t credible. Shallow, nondimensional people 
exist. . . but they are boring. 

For example: What went wrong with Rambo? In FIRST 
BLOOD he was a compelling character—a Vietnam burnout, a 
loner hiking through the mountains, seeking solitude (characteri¬ 
zation). Then a sheriff, for no reason other than wickedly high 
levels of testosterone, provoked him, and out came Rambo, a ruth¬ 
less and unstoppable killer (true character). But once Rambo came 
out, he wouldn’t go back in. For the sequels, he strapped ban¬ 
doleers of bullets across his oiled, pumped muscles, coiffed his 
locks with a red bandanna until super-hero characterization and 
true character merged into a figure with less dimension than a Sat¬ 
urday morning cartoon. 

Compare that flat pattern to fames Bond. Three seems to be the 
limit on Rambos, but there have been nearly twenty Bond films. 
Bond goes on and on because the world delights in the repeated reve¬ 
lation of a deep character that contradicts characterization. Bond 
enjoys playing the lounge lizard: Dressed in a tuxedo, he graces posh 
parties, a cocktail glass dangling from his fingertips as he chats up 
beautiful women. But then story pressure builds and Bond’s choices 


reveal that underneath his lounge lizard exterior is a thinking man's 
Rambo. This expose of witty super-hero in contradiction to playboy 
characterization has become a seemingly endless pleasure. 

Taking the principle further: The revelation of deep character 
in contrast or contradiction to characterization is fundamental in 
major characters. Minor roles may or may not need hidden dimen¬ 
sions, but principals must be written in depth—they cannot be at 
heart what they seem to be at face. 


Taking the principle further yet: The finest writing not 

only reveals true character, but arcs or changes that inner 

nature, for better or worse, over the course of the telling. 

In THE VERDICT, protagonist Frank Galvin first appears as a 
Boston attorney, dressed in a three-piece suit and looking like Paul 
Newman . . . unfairly handsome. David Mamet's screenplay then 
peels back this characterization to reveal a corrupt, bankrupt, self¬ 
destructive, irretrievable drunk who hasn’t won a case for years. 
Divorce and disgrace have broken his spirit. We see him searching 
obituaries for people who have died in automobile or industrial acci¬ 
dents, then going to the funerals of these unfortunates to pass out his 
business card to grieving relatives, hoping to drum up some insur¬ 
ance litigation. This sequence culminates in a rage of drunken self- 
loathing as he trashes his office, rips the diplomas off the walls, and 
smashes them before collapsing in a heap. But then comes the case. 

He’s offered a medical malpractice suit to defend a woman lost 
in a coma. With a quick settlement, he’d make seventy thousand 
dollars. But as he looks at his client in her helpless state, he senses 
that what this case offers is not a fat, easy fee, but his last chance 
for salvation. He chooses to take on the Catholic Church and the 
political establishment, fighting not only for his client but for his 
own soul. With victory comes resurrection. The legal battle changes 
him into a sober, ethical, and excellent attorney—the kind of man 
he once was before he lost his will to live. 


This is the play between character and structure seen throughout 
the history of fiction. First, the story lays out the protagonist’s charac¬ 
terization: Home from the university for the funeral of his father, 
Hamlet is melancholy and confused, wishing he were dead: “Oh, that 
this too too solid flesh would melt...” 

Second, we’re soon led into the heart of the character. His true 
nature is revealed as he chooses to take one action over another: The 
ghost of Hamlet’s father claims he was murdered by Hamlet's uncle, 
Claudius, who has now become king. Hamlet’s choices expose a 
highly intelligent and cautious nature battling to restrain his rash, 
passionate immaturity. He decides to seek revenge, but not until he 
can prove the King’s guilt: “I will speak daggers . . . but use none.” 

Third, this deep nature is at odds with the outer countenance of 
the character, contrasting with it, if not contradicting it. We sense 
that he is not what he appears to be. He’s not merely sad, sensitive, 
and cautious. Other qualities wait hidden beneath his persona. 
Hamlet: “I am but mad north-north-west; when the wind is 
southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” 

Fourth, having exposed the character’s inner nature, the story 
puts greater and greater pressure on him to make more and more 
difficult choices: Hamlet hunts for his father’s killer and finds him 
on his knees in prayer. He could easily kill the King, but Hamlet 
realizes that if Claudius dies in prayer, his soul might go to heaven. 
So Hamlet forces himself to wait and kill Claudius when the King’s 
soul is “as damned and black as Hell whereto it goes.” 

Fifth, by the climax of the story, these choices have profoundly 
changed the humanity of the character: Hamlet’s wars, known and 
unknown, come to an end. He reaches a peaceful maturity as his 
lively intelligence ripens into wisdom: “The rest is silence.” 


The function of STRUCTURE is to provide progressively 
building pressures that force characters into more and 
more difficult dilemmas where they must make more 
and more difficult risk-taking choices and actions, grad- 


ually revealing their true natures, even down to the 
unconscious self. 

The function of CHARACTER is to bring to the story the 
qualities of characterization necessary to convincingly 
act out choices. Put simply, a character must be cred¬ 
ible: young enough or old enough, strong or weak, 
worldly or naive, educated or ignorant, generous or 
selfish, witty or dull, in the right proportions. Each 
must bring to the story the combination of qualities 
that allows an audience to believe that the character 
could and would do what he does. 

Structure and character are interlocked. The event structure of 
a story is created out of the choices that characters make under 
pressure and the actions they choose to take, while characters are 
the creatures who are revealed and changed by how they choose to 
act under pressure. If you change one, you change the other. If you 
change event design, you have also changed character; if you 
change deep character, you must reinvent the structure to express 
the character's changed nature. 

Suppose a story contains a pivotal event in which the protago¬ 
nist, at serious risk, chooses to tell the truth. But the writer feels 
the first draft doesn't work. While studying this scene in the 
rewrite, he decides that his character would lie and changes his 
story design by reversing that action. From one draft to the next the 
protagonist's characterization remains intact—he dresses the 
same, works the same job, laughs at the same jokes. But in the first 
draft he's an honest man. In the second, a liar. With the inversion 
of an event the writer creates a wholly new character. 

Suppose, on the other hand, the process takes this path: The 
writer has a sudden insight into his protagonist’s nature, inspiring 
him to sketch out a radically new psychological profile, trans¬ 
forming an honest man into a liar. To express a wholly changed 
nature the writer will have to do far more than rework the char¬ 
acter’s traits. A dark sense of humor might add texture but would 


never be enough. If story stays the same, character stays the same. 
If the writer reinvents character, he must reinvent story. A changed 
character must make new choices, take different actions, and live 
another story—his story. Whether our instincts work through char¬ 
acter or structure, they ultimately meet at the same place. 

For this reason the phrase “character-driven story” is redun¬ 
dant. All stories are “character-driven.” Event design and character 
design mirror each other. Character cannot be expressed in depth 
except through the design of story. 

The key is appropriateness. 

The relative complexity of character must be adjusted to genre. 
Action/Adventure and Farce demand simplicity of character because 
complexity would distract us from the derring-do or pratfalls indis¬ 
pensable to those genres. Stories of personal and inner conflict, 
such as Education and Redemption Plots, demand complexity of 
character because simplicity would rob us of the insight into 
human nature requisite to those genres. This is common sense. So 
what does “character-driven” really mean? For too many writers it 
means “characterization driven,” tissue-thin portraiture in which 
the mask may be well drawn but deep character is left underdevel¬ 
oped and unexpressed. 


The interlock of structure and character seems neatly symmetrical 
until we come to the problem of endings. A revered Hollywood 
axiom warns: “Movies are about their last twenty minutes.” In 
other words, for a film to have a chance in the world, the last act 
and its climax must be the most satisfying experience of all. For no 
matter what the first ninety minutes have achieved, if the final 
movement fails, the film will die over its opening weekend. 

Compare two films: For the first eighty minutes of BLIND 
DATE Kim Basinger and Bruce Willis careened through this farce, 
exploding laugh after laugh. But with the Act Two climax all 
laughter ceased, Act Three fell flat, and what should have been a hit 
went south. KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, on the other hand, 


opened with a tedious thirty or forty minutes, but gradually the 
film drew us into deep involvement and built pace until the Story 
Cimax moved us as few dramas do. Audiences who were bored at 
eight o’clock were elated at ten o’clock. Word-of-mouth gave the 
film legs; the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted 
William Hurt an Oscar. 

Story is metaphor for life and life is lived in time. Film, there¬ 
fore, is temporal art, not plastic art. Our cousins are not the spacial 
media of painting, sculpture, architecture, or still photography, but 
the temporal forms of music, dance, poetry, and song. And the first 
commandment of all temporal art is: Thou shalt save the best for 
last. The final movement of a ballet, the coda of a symphony, the 
couplet of a sonnet, the last act and its Story Climax—these culmi¬ 
nating moments must be the most gratifying, meaningful experi¬ 
ences of all. 

A finished screenplay represents, obviously, ioo percent of its 
author’s creative labor. The vast majority of this work, 75 percent or 
more of our struggles, goes into designing the interlock of deep 
character to the invention and arrangement of events. The writing 
of dialogue and description consumes what’s left. And of the over¬ 
whelming effort that goes into designing story, 75 percent of that is 
focused on creating the climax of the last act. The story’s ultimate 
event is the writer’s ultimate task. 

Gene Fowler once said that writing is easy, just a matter of 
staring at the blank page until your forehead bleeds. And if any¬ 
thing will draw blood from your forehead, it’s creating the climax 
of the last act—the pinnacle and concentration of all meaning and 
emotion, the fulfillment for which all else is preparation, the deci¬ 
sive center of audience satisfaction. If this scene fails, the story 
fails. Until you have created it, you don’t have a story. If you fail to 
make the poetic leap to a brilliant culminating climax, all previous 
scenes, characters, dialogue, and description become an elaborate 
typing exercise. 

Suppose you were to wake up one morning with the inspiration 
to write this Story Climax: “Hero and villain pursue each other on 
foot for three days and three nights across the Mojave Desert. On 


the brink of dehydration, exhaustion, and delirium, a hundred 
miles from the nearest water, they fight it out and one kills the 
other.” It’s thrilling . . . until you look back at your protagonist and 
remember that he’s a seventy-five-year-old retired accountant, hob¬ 
bled on crutches and allergic to dust. He’d turn your tragic climax 
into a joke. What’s worse, your agent tells you Walter Matthau 
wants to play him as soon as you get the ending sorted out. What 
do you do? 

Find the page where the protagonist is introduced, on it locate 
the phrase of description that reads “Jake (75)”, then delete 7, insert 3. 
In other words, rework characterization. Deep character remains 
unchanged because whether Jake is thirty-five or seventy-five, he still 
has the will and tenacity to go to the limit in the Mojave. But you 
must make him credible. 

In 1924 Erich von Stroheim made GREED. Its climax plays out 
over three days and three nights, hero and villain, across the 
Mojave Desert. Von Stroheim shot this sequence in the Mojave in 
high summer with temperatures rising to over 130 degrees Fahren¬ 
heit. He almost killed his cast and crew, but he got what he wanted: 
a white-on-white landscape of vast salt wastes extending to the 
horizon. Under the scorching sun, hero and villain, skin cracked 
and parched like the desert floor, grapple. In the struggle the villain 
grabs a rock and smashes in the skull of the hero. But as the hero 
dies, in his last moment of consciousness, he manages to reach up 
and handcuff himself to his killer. In the final image the villain col¬ 
lapses in the dust chained to the corpse he just killed. 

GREED’S brilliant ending is created out of ultimate choices that 
profoundly delineate its characters. Any aspect of characterization 
that undermines the credibility of such an action must be sacrificed. 
Plot, as Aristotle noted, is more important than characterization, but 
story structure and true character are one phenomenon seen from 
two points of view. The choices that characters make from behind 
their outer masks simultaneously shape their inner natures and 
propel the story. From Oedipus Rex to Falstaff, from Anna Karenina 
to Lord Jim, from Zorba the Greek to Thelma and Louise, this is the 
character/structure dynamic of consummate storytelling. 



Aristotle approached the question of story and meaning in this 
way: Why is it, he asked, when we see a dead body in the street we 
have one reaction, but when we read of death in Homer, or see it in 
the theatre, we have another? Because in life idea and emotion 
come separately. Mind and passions revolve in different spheres of 
our humanity, rarely coordinated, usually at odds. 

In life, if you see a dead body in the street, you’re struck by a 
rush of adrenaline: “My God, he's dead!” Perhaps you drive away 
in fear. Later, in the coolness of time, you may reflect on the 
meaning of this stranger’s demise, on your own mortality, on life 
in the shadow of death. This contemplation may change you 
within so that the next time you are confronted with death, you 
have a new, perhaps more compassionate reaction. Or, reversing 
the pattern, you may, in youth, think deeply but not wisely about 
love, embracing an idealistic vision that trips you into a poignant 
but very painful romance. This may harden the heart, creating a 
cynic who in later years finds bitter what the young still think 

Your intellectual life prepares you for emotional experiences 
that then urge you toward fresh perceptions that in turn remix the 
chemistry of new encounters. The two realms influence each other, 
but first one, then the other. In fact, in life, moments that blaze 
with a fusion of idea and emotion are so rare, when they happen 


you think you’re having a religious experience. But whereas life 
separates meaning from emotion, art unites them. Story is an 
instrument by which you create such epiphanies at will, the phe¬ 
nomenon known as aesthetic emotion. 

The source of all art is the human psyche’s primal, prelin- 
guistic need for the resolution of stress and discord through beauty 
and harmony, for the use of creativity to revive a life deadened by 
routine, for a link to reality through our instinctive, sensory feel for 
the truth. Like music and dance, painting and sculpture, poetry and 
song, story is first, last, and always the experience of aesthetic emo¬ 
tion—the simultaneous encounter of thought and feeling. 

When an idea wraps itself around an emotional charge, it 
becomes all the more powerful, all the more profound, all the more 
memorable. You might forget the day you saw a dead body in the 
street, but the death of Hamlet haunts you forever. Life on its own, 
without art to shape it, leaves you in confusion and chaos, but aes¬ 
thetic emotion harmonizes what you know with what you feel to 
give you a heightened awareness and a sureness of your place in 
reality. In short, a story well told gives you the very thing you 
cannot get from life: meaningful emotional experience. In life, 
experiences become meaningful with reflection in time. In art, they 
are meaningful now, at the instant they happen. 

In this sense, story is, at heart, nonintellectual. It does not 
express ideas in the dry, intellectual arguments of an essay. But this 
is not to say story is anti-intellectual. We pray that the writer has 
ideas of import and insight. Rather, the exchange between artist and 
audience expresses idea directly through the senses and percep¬ 
tions, intuition and emotion. It requires no mediator, no critic to 
rationalize the transaction, to replace the ineffable and the sentient 
with explanation and abstraction. Scholarly acumen sharpens taste 
and judgment, but we must never mistake criticism for art. Intellec¬ 
tual analysis, however heady, will not nourish the soul. 

A well-told story neither expresses the clockwork reasonings of a 
thesis nor vents raging inchoate emotions. It triumphs in the mar¬ 
riage of the rational with the irrational. For a work that’s either essen¬ 
tially emotional or essentially intellectual cannot have the validity of 


one that calls upon our subtler faculties of sympathy, empathy, pre¬ 
monition, discernment. . . our innate sensitivity to the truth. 


Two ideas bracket the creative process: Premise, the idea that inspires 
the writer’s desire to create a story, and Controlling Idea, the story's 
ultimate meaning expressed through the action and aesthetic emotion 
of the last act's climax. A Premise, however, unlike a Controlling Idea, 
is rarely a closed statement. More likely, it’s an open-ended question: 
What would happen if. .. ? What would happen if a shark swam into 
a beach resort and devoured a vacationer? JAWS. What would happen 
if a wife walked out on her husband and child? KRAMER VS. 
KRAMER. Stanislavski called this the “Magic if. ..the daydreamy 
hypothetical that floats through the mind, opening the door to the 
imagination where everything and anything seems possible. 

But “What would happen if. . ” is only one kind of Premise. 
Writers find inspiration wherever they turn—in a friend’s light¬ 
hearted confession of a dark desire, the jibe of a legless beggar, a 
nightmare or daydream, a newspaper fact, a child's fantasy. Even the 
craft itself may inspire. Purely technical exercises, such as linking a 
smooth transition from one scene to the next or editing dialogue to 
avoid repetition, may trigger a burst of imagination. Anything may 
premise the writing, even, for example, a glance out a window. 

In 1965 Ingmar Bergman contracted labyrinthitis, a viral infection 
of the inner ear that keeps its victims in a ceaselessly swirling vertigo, 
even while sleeping. For weeks Bergman was bedridden, his head in a 
brace, trying to keep vertigo at bay by staring at a spot his doctor had 
painted on the ceiling, but with each glance away the room spun like a 
whirligig. Concentrating on the spot, he began to imagine two faces 
intermingled. Days later, as he recovered, he glanced through a 
window and saw a nurse and a patient sitting comparing hands. 
Those images, the nurse/patient relationship and merging faces, were 
the genesis for Bergman’s masterpiece PERSONA. 

Flashes of inspiration or intuition that seem so random and 
spontaneous are in fact serendipitous. For what may inspire one 


writer will be ignored by another. The Premise awakens what waits 
within, the visions or convictions nascent in the writer. The sum 
total of his experience has prepared him for this moment and he 
reacts to it as only he would. Now the work begins. Along the way 
he interprets, chooses, and makes judgments. If, to some people, a 
writer’s final statement about life appears dogmatic and opinion¬ 
ated, so be it. Bland and pacifying writers are a bore. We want 
unfettered souls with the courage to take a point of view, artists 
whose insights startle and excite. 

Finally, it’s important to realize that whatever inspires the 
writing need not stay in the writing. A Premise is not precious. As 
long as it contributes to the growth of story, keep it, but should the 
telling take a left turn, abandon the original inspiration to follow 
the evolving story. The problem is not to start writing, but to keep 
writing and renewing inspiration. We rarely know where we're 
going; writing is discovery. 


Make no mistake: While a story’s inspiration may be a dream and 
its final effect aesthetic emotion, a work moves from an open 
premise to a fulfilling climax only when the writer is possessed by 
serious thought. For an artist must have not only ideas to express, 
but ideas to prove. Expressing an idea, in the sense of exposing it, is 
never enough. The audience must not just understand; it must 
believe. You want the world to leave your story convinced that yours 
is a truthful metaphor for life. And the means by which you bring 
the audience to your point of view resides in the very design you 
give your telling. As you create your story, you create your proof; 
idea and structure intertwine in a rhetorical relationship. 

STORYTELLING is the creative demonstration of truth. A 
story is the living proof of an idea, the conversion of 
idea to action. A story's event structure is the means 
by which you first express, then prove your idea . . . 
without explanation. 


Master storytellers never explain. They do the hard, painfully 
creative thing—they dramatize. Audiences are rarely interested, and 
certainly never convinced, when forced to listen to the discussion of 
ideas. Dialogue, the natural talk of characters pursuing desire, is not 
a platform for the filmmaker's philosophy. Explanations of authorial 
ideas, whether in dialogue or narration, seriously diminish a film’s 
quality. A great story authenticates its ideas solely within the 
dynamics of its events; failure to express a view of life through the 
pure, honest consequences of human choice and action is a creative 
defeat no amount of clever language can salvage. 

To illustrate, consider that prolific genre, Crime. What idea is 
expressed by virtually all detective fiction? “Crime doesn't pay.” 
How do we come to understand that? Hopefully without one char¬ 
acter musing to another, “There! What’d I tell ya? Crime doesn’t 
pay. Nope, it looked like they’d get away with it, but the wheels of 
justice turned unrelentingly . . .” No, we see the idea acted out in 
front of us: A crime is committed; for a while the criminal goes 
free; eventually he’s apprehended and punished. In the act of pun¬ 
ishment—imprisoning him for life or shooting him dead on the 
street—an emotionally charged idea runs through the audience. 
And if we could put words to this idea, they wouldn’t be as polite as 
“Crime does not pay.” Rather: “They got the bastard!” An electri¬ 
fying triumph of justice and social revenge. 

The kind and quality of aesthetic emotion is relative. The 
Psycho-Thriller strives for very strong effects; other forms, like the 
Disillusionment plot or the Love Story, want the softer emotions of 
perhaps sadness or compassion. But regardless of genre, the prin¬ 
ciple is universal: the story’s meaning, whether comic or tragic, 
must be dramatized in an emotionally expressive Story Climax 
without the aid of explanatory dialogue. 


Theme has become a rather vague term in the writer’s vocabulary. 
“Poverty,” “war,” and "love,” for example, are not themes; they 
relate to setting or genre. A true theme is not a word but a sen- 


tence—one clear, coherent sentence that expresses a story's irre¬ 
ducible meaning. I prefer the phrase Controlling Idea, for like 
theme, it names a story's root or central idea, but it also implies 
function: The Controlling Idea shapes the writer’s strategic choices. 
It’s yet another Creative Discipline to guide your aesthetic choices 
toward what is appropriate or inappropriate in your story, toward 
what is expressive of your Controlling Idea and may be kept versus 
what is irrelevant to it and must be cut. 

The Controlling Idea of a completed story must be expressible in 
a single sentence. After the Premise is first imagined and the work is 
evolving, explore everything and anything that comes to mind. Ulti¬ 
mately, however, the film must be molded around one idea. This is 
not to say that a story can be reduced to a rubric. Far more is cap¬ 
tured within the web of a story that can ever be stated in words— 
subtleties, subtexts, conceits, double meanings, richness of all kinds. 
A story becomes a kind of living philosophy that the audience mem¬ 
bers grasp as a whole, in a flash, without conscious thought—a per¬ 
ception married to their life experiences. But the irony is this: 

The more beautifully you shape your work around one clear 
idea, the more meanings audiences will discover in your film as 
they take your idea and follow its implications into every aspect of 
their lives. Conversely, the more ideas you try to pack into a story, 
the more they implode upon themselves, until the film collapses 
into a rubble of tangential notions, saying nothing. 

A CONTROLLING IDEA may be expressed in a single sen¬ 
tence describing how and why life undergoes change 
from one condition of existence at the beginning to 
another at the end. 

The Controlling Idea has two components: Value plus Cause. It 
identifies the positive or negative charge of the story's critical value 
at the last act’s climax, and it identifies the chief reason that this 
value has changed to its final state. The sentence composed from 
these two elements, Value plus Cause, expresses the core meaning 
of the story. 


Value means the primary value in its positive or negative 
charge that comes into the world or life of your character as a result 
of the final action of the story. For example: An up-ending Crime 
Story (IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT) returns an unjust world 
(negative) to justice (positive), suggesting a phrase such as “Justice 
is restored . . ” In a down-ending Political Thriller (MISSING), the 
military dictatorship commands the story’s world at climax, 
prompting a negative phrase such as “Tyranny prevails ...” A posi¬ 
tive-ending Education Plot (GROUNDHOG DAY) arcs the protago¬ 
nist from a cynical, self-serving man to someone who’s genuinely 
selfless and loving, leading to “Happiness fills our lives ...” A neg¬ 
ative-ending Love Story (DANGEROUS LIAISONS) turns passion 
into self-loathing, evoking “Hatred destroys ...” 

Cause refers to the primary reason that the life or world of the 
protagonist has turned to its positive or negative value. Working 
back from the ending to the beginning, we trace the chief cause 
deep within the character, society, or environment that has brought 
this value into existence. A complex story may contain many forces 
for change, but generally one cause dominates the others. There¬ 
fore, in a Crime Story, neither “Crime doesn't pay ...” (justice 
triumphs . . . ) nor “Crime pays ...” (injustice triumphs . . . ) 
could stand as a full Controlling Idea because each gives us only 
half a meaning—the ending value. A story of substance also 
expresses why its world or protagonist has ended on its specific 

If, for example, you were writing for Clint Eastwood’s Dirty 
Harry, your full Controlling Idea of Value plus Cause would be: 
“Justice triumphs because the protagonist is more violent than the 
criminals.” Dirty Harry manages some minor detective work here 
and there, but his violence is the dominant cause for change. This 
insight then guides you to what’s appropriate and inappropriate. It 
tells you it would be inappropriate to write a scene in which Dirty 
Harry comes upon the murder victim, discovers a ski cap left 
behind by the fleeing killer, takes out a magnifying glass, examines 
it, and concludes, “Hmm . . . this man’s approximately thirty-five 
years of age; he has reddish hair; and he comes from the coal- 


mining regions of Pennsylvania—notice the anthracitic dust.” This 
is Sherlock Holmes, not Dirty Harry. 

If, however, you were writing for Peter Falk’s Columbo, your Con¬ 
trolling Idea would be: “Justice is restored because the protagonist is 
more clever than the criminal.” The ski cap forensics might be appro¬ 
priate for Columbo because the dominant cause for change in the 
Columbo series is Sherlock Holmesian deduction. It would be inap¬ 
propriate, however, for Columbo to reach under his wrinkled raincoat, 
come up with a .44 Magnum, and start blowing people away. 

To complete the previous examples: IN THE HEAT OF THE 
NIGHT—justice is restored because a perceptive black outsider sees 
the truth of white perversion. GROUNDHOG DAY—happiness 
fills our lives when we learn to love unconditionally. MISSING— 
tyranny prevails because it’s supported by a corrupt CIA. DAN¬ 
GEROUS LIAISONS—hatred destroys us when we fear the opposite 
sex. The Controlling Idea is the purest form of a story’s meaning, the 
how and why of change, the vision of life the audience members 
carry away into their lives. 

Meaning and the Creative Process 

How do you find your story’s Controlling Idea? The creative process 
may begin anywhere. You might be prompted by a Premise, a “What 
would happen if...or a bit of character, or an image. You might 
start in the middle, the beginning, near the end. As your fictional 
world and characters grow, events interlink and the story builds. Then 
comes that crucial moment when you take the leap and create the 
Story Climax. This climax of the last act is a final action that excites 
and moves you, that feels complete and satisfying. The Controlling 
Idea is now at hand. 

Looking at your ending, ask: As a result of this climatic action, 
what value, positively or negatively charged, is brought into the world 
of my protagonist? Next, tracing backward from this climax, digging 
to the bedrock, ask: What is the chief cause, force, or means by which 
this value is brought into his world? The sentence you compose from 
the answers to those two questions becomes your Controlling Idea. 


In other words, the story tells you its meaning; you do not dic¬ 
tate meaning to the story. You do not draw action from idea, rather 
idea from action. For no matter your inspiration, ultimately the 
story embeds its Controlling Idea within the final climax, and when 
this event speaks its meaning, you will experience one of the most 
powerful moments in the writing life— Self-Recognition: The Story 
Climax mirrors your inner self, and if your story is from the very 
best sources within you, more often than not you'll be shocked by 
what you see reflected in it. 

You may think you're a warm, loving human being until you 
find yourself writing tales of dark, cynical consequence. Or you 
may think you’re a street-wise guy who’s been around the block a 
few times until you find yourself writing warm, compassionate 
endings. You think you know who you are, but often you’re 
amazed by what’s skulking inside in need of expression. In other 
words, if a plot works out exactly as you first planned, you’re not 
working loosely enough to give room to your imagination and 
instincts. Your story should surprise you again and again. Beautiful 
story design is a combination of the subject found, the imagination 
at work, and the mind loosely but wisely executing the craft. 

Idea Versus Counter-Idea 

Paddy Chayefsky once told me that when he finally discovered his 
story's meaning, he'd scratch it out on a scrap of paper and tape it to 
his typewriter, so that nothing going through the machine wouldn't in 
one way or another express his central theme. With a clear statement 
of Value plus Cause staring him in the eye, he could resist intriguing 
irrelevancies and concentrate on unifying the telling around the 
story’s core meaning. By “one way or another," Chayefsky meant he’d 
forge the story dynamically, moving it back and forth across the 
opposing charges of its primary values. His improvisations would be 
so shaped that sequence after sequence alternately expressed the posi¬ 
tive, then negative dimension of his Controlling Idea. In other words, 
he fashioned his stories by playing Idea against Counter-Idea. 


PROGRESSIONS build by moving dynamically between 
the positive and negative charges of the values at stake 
in the story. 

From the moment of inspiration you reach into your fictional 
world in search of a design. You have to build a bridge of story from 
the opening to the ending, a progression of events that spans from 
Premise to Controlling Idea. These events echo the contradictory 
voices of one theme. Sequence by sequence, often scene by scene, the 
positive Idea and its negative Counter-Idea argue, so to speak, back 
and forth, creating a dramatized dialectical debate. At climax one of 
these two voices wins and becomes the story's Controlling Idea. 

To illustrate with the familiar cadences of the Crime Story : A typ¬ 
ical opening sequence expresses the negative Counter-Idea, “Crime 
pays because the criminals are brilliant and/or ruthless” as it drama¬ 
tizes a crime so enigmatic (VERTIGO) or committed by such diabol¬ 
ical criminals (DIE HARD) that the audience is stunned: “They're 
going to get away with it!” But as a veteran detective discovers a clue 
left by the fleeing killer (THE BIG SLEEP), the next sequence contra¬ 
dicts this fear with the positive Idea, “Crime doesn't pay because the 
protagonist is even more brilliant and/or ruthless." Then perhaps the 
cop is misled into suspecting the wrong person (FAREWELL, MY 
LOVELY): “Crime pays." But soon the protagonist uncovers the real 
identity of the villain (THE FUGITIVE): “Crime doesn't pay.” Next the 
criminal captures, may even seem to kill, the protagonist (ROBOCOP): 
“Crime pays.” But the cop virtually resurrects from the dead 
(SUDDEN IMPACT) and goes back on the hunt: “Crime doesn't pay.” 

The positive and negative assertions of the same idea contest 
back and forth through the film, building in intensity, until at Crisis 
they collide head-on in a last impasse. Out of this rises the Story 
Climax, in which one or the other idea succeeds. This may be the 
positive Idea: “Justice triumphs because the protagonist is tena¬ 
ciously resourceful and courageous” (BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, 
SPEED, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), or the negative Counter- 
Idea: “Injustice prevails because the antagonist is overwhelmingly 
ruthless and powerful” (SEVEN, Q & A, CHINATOWN). Which- 


ever of the two is dramatized in the final climatic action becomes 
the Controlling Idea of Value plus Cause, the purest statement of 
the story’s conclusive and decisive meaning. 

This rhythm of Idea versus Counter-Idea is fundamental and 
essential to our art. It pulses at the heart of all fine stories, no 
matter how internalized the action. What's more, this simple 
dynamic can become very complex, subtle, and ironic. 

In SEA OF LOVE detective Keller (Al Pacino) falls in love with 
his chief suspect (Ellen Barkin). As a result, each scene that points 
toward her guilt turns with irony: positive on the value of justice, 
negative on the value of love. In the maturation plot SHINE, 
David’s (Noah Taylor) musical victories (positive) provoke his 
father’s (Armin Mueller-Stahl) envy and brutal repression (nega¬ 
tive), driving the pianist into a pathological immaturity (doubly 
negative), which makes his final success a triumph of maturity in 
both art and spirit (doubly positive). 


A note of caution: In creating the dimensions of your story’s “argu¬ 
ment,” take great care to build the power of both sides. Compose 
the scenes and sequences that contradict your final statement with 
as much truth and energy as those that reinforce it. If your film 
ends on the Counter-Idea, such as “Crime pays because . . . ,” then 
amplify the sequences that lead the audience to feel justice will win 
out. If your film ends on the Idea, such as “Justice triumphs 
because . . . then enhance the sequences expressing “Crime pays 
and pays big.” In other words, do not slant your “argument.” 

If, in a morality tale, you were to write your antagonist as an 
ignorant fool who more or less destroys himself, are we persuaded 
that good will prevail? But if, like an ancient myth-maker, you were 
to create an antagonist of virtual omnipotence who reaches the 
brink of success, you would force yourself to create a protagonist 
who will rise to the occasion and become even more powerful, 
more brilliant. In this balanced telling your victory of good over evil 
now rings with validity. 


The danger is this: When your Premise is an idea you feel you 
must prove to the world, and you design your story as an undeniable 
certification of that idea, you set yourself on the road to didacticism. 
In your zeal to persuade, you will stifle the voice of the other side. 
Misusing and abusing art to preach, your screenplay will become a 
thesis film, a thinly disguised sermon as you strive in a single stroke 
to convert the world. Didacticism results from the naive enthusiasm 
that fiction can be used like a scalpel to cut out the cancers of society. 

More often than not, such stories take the form of Social 
Drama, a lead-handed genre with two defining conventions: Iden¬ 
tify a social ill; dramatize its remedy. The writer, for example, may 
decide that war is the scourge of humanity, and pacifism is the 
cure. In his zeal to convince us all his good people are very, very 
good people, and all his bad people are very, very bad people. All 
the dialogue is “on the nose” laments about the futility and insanity 
of war, heartfelt declarations that the cause of war is the “establish¬ 
ment.” From outline to last draft, he fills the screen with stomach¬ 
turning images, making certain that each and every scene says loud 
and clear: “War is a scourge, but it can be cured by pacifism . . . 
war is a scourge cured by pacifism . . . war is a scourge cured by 
pacifism . . .” until you want to pick up a gun. 

But the pacifist pleas of antiwar films (OH! WHAT A LOVELY 
rarely sensitize us to war. We're unconvinced because in the rush 
to prove he has the answer, the writer is blind to a truth we know 
too well—men love war. 

This does not mean that starting with an idea is certain to pro¬ 
duce didactic work . . . but that's the risk. As a story develops, you 
must willingly entertain opposite, even repugnant ideas. The finest 
writers have dialectical, flexible minds that easily shift points of view. 
They see the positive, the negative, and all shades of irony, seeking 
the truth of these views honestly and convincingly. This omniscience 
forces them to become even more creative, more imaginative, and 
more insightful. Ultimately, they express what they deeply believe, 
but not until they have allowed themselves to weigh each living issue 
and experience all its possibilities. 


Make no mistake, no one can achieve excellence as a writer 
without being something of a philosopher and holding strong con¬ 
victions. The trick is not to be a slave to your ideas, but to immerse 
yourself in life. For the proof of your vision is not how well you can 
assert your Controlling Idea, but its victory over the enormously 
powerful forces that you array against it. 

Consider the superb balance of three antiwar films directed by 
Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick and his screenwriters researched and 
explored the Counter-Idea to look deep within the human psyche 
itself. Their stories reveal war to be the logical extension of an intrinsic 
dimension of human nature that loves to fight and kill, chilling us 
with the realization that what humanity loves to do, it will do—as it 
has for aeons, through the now and into all foreseeable futures. 

In Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY the fate of France hangs on 
winning the war against the Germans at any cost. So when the 
French army retreats from battle, an outraged general devises an 
innovative motivational strategy: He orders his artillery to bombard 
his own troops. In DR. STRANGE LOVE the United States and 
Russia both realize that in nuclear war, not losing is more impor¬ 
tant than winning, so each concocts a scheme for not losing so 
effective it incinerates all life on Earth. In FULL METAL JACKET, 
the Marine Corps faces a tough task: how to persuade human 
beings to ignore the genetic prohibition against killing their own 
kind. The simple solution is to brainwash recruits into believing 
that the enemy is not human; killing a man then becomes easy, 
even if he’s your drill instructor. Kubrick knew that if he gave the 
humanity enough ammunition, it would shoot itself. 

A great work is a living metaphor that says, "Life is like this 
The classics, down through the ages, give us not solutions but 
lucidity, not answers but poetic candor; they make inescapably 
clear the problems all generations must solve to be human. 


Writers and the stories they tell can be usefully divided into three grand 
categories, according to the emotional charge of their Controlling Idea. 





Idealistic Controlling Ideas 

“Up-ending” stories expressing the optimism, hopes, and dreams 
of mankind, a positively charged vision of the human spirit; life as 
we wish it to be. Examples: 

“Love fills our lives when we conquer intellectual illusions 
and follow our instincts”: HANNAH AND HER SISTERS. In this 


Multiplot story, a collection of New Yorkers are seeking love, but 
they’re unable to find it because they keep thinking, analyzing, 
trying to decipher the meaning of things: sexual politics, careers, 
morality or immortality. One by one, however, they cast off their 
intellectual illusions and listen to their hearts. The moment they 
do, they all find love. This is one of the most optimistic films 
Woody Allen has ever made. 

“Goodness triumphs when we outwit evil”: THE WITCHES OF 
EASTWICK. The witches ingeniously turn the devil’s own dirty 
tricks against him and find goodness and happiness in the form of 
three chubby-cheeked babies. 

“The courage and genius of humanity will prevail over the hos¬ 
tility of Nature.” Survival Films, a subgenre of Action/Adventure, are 
“up-ending” stories of life-and-death conflict with forces of the 
environment. At the brink of extinction, the protagonists, through 
dint of will and resourcefulness, battle the often cruel personality 
of Mother Nature and endure: THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, 

Pessimistic Controlling Ideas 

“Down-ending” stories expressing our cynicism, our sense of loss and 
misfortune, a negatively charged vision of civilization’s decline, of 
humanity's dark dimensions; life as we dread it to be but know it so 
often is. Examples: 

“Passion turns to violence and destroys our lives when we use 
people as objects of pleasure”: DANCE WITH A STRANGER. The 
lovers in this British work think their problem is a difference of 
class, but class has been overcome by countless couples. The deep 
conflict is that their affair is poisoned by desires to possess each 
other as objects for neurotic gratification, until one seizes the ulti¬ 
mate possession—the life of her lover. 

“Evil triumphs because it’s part of human nature”: CHINA¬ 
TOWN. On a superficial level, CHINATOWN suggests that the 
rich get away with murder. They do indeed. But more profoundly 


the film expresses the ubiquity of evil. In reality, because good and 
evil are equal parts of human nature, evil vanquishes good as often 
as good conquers evil. We're both angel and devil. If our natures 
leaned just slightly toward one or the other, all social dilemmas 
would have been solved centuries ago. But we’re so divided, we 
never know from day to day which we’ll be. One day we build the 
Cathedral of Notre Dame; the next, Auschwitz. 

“The power of nature will have the final say over mankind's 
futile efforts.” When the Counter-Idea of survival films becomes 
the Controlling Idea, we have that rare “down-ending” movie in 
which again human beings battle a manifestation of nature, but 
now nature prevails: SCOTT OF THE ANTARCTIC, THE ELE¬ 
PHANT MAN, EARTHQUAKE, and THE BIRDS, in which nature 
lets us off with a warning. These films are rare because the pes¬ 
simistic vision is a hard truth that some people wish to avoid. 

Ironic Controlling Ideas 

“Up/down-ending” stories expressing our sense of the complex, 
dual nature of existence, a simultaneously charged positive and 
negative vision; life at its most complete and realistic. 

Here optimism/idealism and pessimism/cynicism merge. Rather 
than voicing one extreme or the other, the story says both. The Ideal¬ 
istic “Love triumphs when we sacrifice our needs for others,” as in 
KRAMER VS. KRAMER, melds with the Pessimistic “Love destroys 
when self-interest rules,” as in THE WAR OF THE ROSES, and 
results in an ironic Controlling Idea: “Love is both pleasure and pain, 
a poignant anguish, a tender cruelty we pursue because without it life 
has no meaning,” as in ANNIE HALL, MANHATTAN, ADDICTED 

What follows are two examples of Controlling Ideas whose 
ironies have helped define the ethics and attitudes of contemporary 
American society. First, the positive irony: 

The compulsive pursuit of contemporary values—success, 

fortune, fame, sex, power—will destroy you, but if you 


see this truth in time and throw away your obsession, 
you can redeem yourself. 

Until the 1970s an “up-ending” could be loosely defined as 
“The protagonist gets what he wants.” At climax the protagonist’s 
object of desire became a trophy of sorts, depending on the value at 
stake—the lover of one’s dreams (love), the dead body of the villain 
(justice), a badge of achievement (fortune, victory), public recogni¬ 
tion (power, fame)—and he won it. 

In the 1970s, however, Hollywood evolved a highly ironic ver¬ 
sion of the success story. Redemption Plots, in which protagonists 
pursue values that were once esteemed—money, reknown, career, 
love, winning, success—but with a compulsiveness, a blindness 
that carries them to the brink of self-destruction. They stand to lose, 
if not their lives, their humanity. They manage, however, to glimpse 
the ruinous nature of their obsession, stop before they go over the 
edge, then throw away what they once cherished. This pattern gives 
rise to an ending rich in irony: At climax the protagonist sacrifices 
his dream (positive), a value that has become a soul-corrupting fixa¬ 
tion (negative), to gain an honest, sane, balanced life (positive). 

around this irony, each expressing it in a unique and powerful way. As 
these titles indicate, this idea has been a magnet for Oscars. 

In terms of technique, the execution of the climactic action in 
these films is fascinating. Historically, a positive ending is a scene 
in which the protagonist takes an action that gets him what he 
wants. Yet in all the works cited above, the protagonist either 
refuses to act on his obsession or throws away what he once 


desired. He or she wins by “losing." Like solving the Zen riddle of 
the sound of one hand clapping, the writer’s problem in each case 
was how to make a nonaction or negative action feel positive. 

At the climax of NORTH DALLAS FORTY All-Star wide 
receiver Phillip Elliot (Nick Nolte) opens his arms and lets the foot¬ 
ball bounce off his chest, announcing in his gesture that he won’t 
play this childish game anymore. 

THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN ends as the former rodeo star 
Sonny Steele (Robert Redford), now reduced to peddling breakfast 
cereal, releases his sponsor’s prize stallion into the wild, symboli¬ 
cally freeing himself from his need for fame. 

OUT OF AFRICA is the story of a woman living the 1980s 
ethic of “I am what I own.” Karen’s (Meryl Streep) first words are: 
“I had a farm in Africa.” She drags her furniture from Denmark to 
Kenya to build a home and plantation. She so defines herself by 
her possessions that she calls the laborers “her people” until her 
lover points out that she doesn’t actually own these people. When 
her husband infects her with syphilis, she doesn’t divorce him 
because her identity is “wife,” defined by her possession of a hus¬ 
band. In time, however, she comes to realize you are not what you 
own; you are your values, talents, what you can do. When her lover 
is killed, she grieves but is not lost because she is not he. With a 
shrug, she lets husband, home, everything go, surrendering all she 
had, but gaining herself. 

TERMS OF ENDEARMENT tells of a very different obsession. 
Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) lives the Epicurean philosophy that hap¬ 
piness means never suffering, that the secret of life is to avoid all 
negative emotion. She refuses two renowned sources of misery, 
career and lovers. She’s so afraid of the pain of growing old, she 
dresses twenty years too young for herself. Her home has the un- 
lived-in look of a doll’s house. The only life she leads is over the 
telephone vicariously through her daughter. But on her fifty-second 
birthday she begins to realize that the depth of joy you experience 
is in direct proportion to the pain you’re willing to bear. In the last 
act she throws away the emptiness of a pain-free life to embrace 
children, lover, age, and all the pleasure and woe they bring. 


Second, the negative irony: 

If you ding to your obsession, your ruthless pursuit will 
achieve your desire, then destroy you. 

THEY?—these films are the Punitive Plot counterpart to the Redemp¬ 
tion Plots above. In them the “down-ending” Counter-Idea becomes 
the Controlling Idea as protagonists remain steadfastly driven by 
their need to achieve fame or success, and never think to abandon it. 
At Story Climax the protagonists achieve their desire (positive), only 
to be destroyed by it (negative). In NIXON the president’s (Anthony 
Hopkins) blind, corrupt trust in his political power destroys him and 
with him the nation’s faith in government. In THE ROSE Rose 
(Bette Midler) is destroyed by her passion for drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ 
roll. In ALL THAT JAZZ foe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is brought down 
by his neurotic need for drugs, sex, and musical comedy. 

On Irony 

The effect of irony on an audience is that wonderful reaction, “Ah, 
life is just like that.” We recognize that idealism and pessimism are 
at the extremes of experience, that life is rarely all sunshine and 
strawberries, nor is it all doom and drek; it is both. From the worst 
of experiences something positive can be gained; for the richest of 
experiences a great price must be paid. No matter how we try to 
plot a straight passage through life, we sail on the tides of irony. 
Reality is relentlessly ironic, and this is why stories that end in 
irony tend to last the longest through time, travel the widest in the 
world, and draw the greatest love and respect from audiences. 

This is also why, of the three possible emotional charges at 
climax, irony is by far the most difficult to write. It demands the 
deepest wisdom and the highest craft for three reasons. 

First, it’s tough enough to come up with either a bright, ideal¬ 
istic ending or a sober, pessimistic climax that’s satisfying and con- 


vincing. But an ironic climax is a single action that makes both a 
positive and a negative statement. How to do two in one? 

Second, how to say both clearly ? Irony doesn't mean ambiguity. 
Ambiguity is a blur; one thing cannot be distinguished from 
another. But there’s nothing ambiguous about irony; it's a clear, 
double declaration of what’s gained and what’s lost, side by side. 
Nor does irony mean coincidence. A true irony is honestly moti¬ 
vated. Stories that end by random chance, doubly charged or not, 
are meaningless, not ironic. 

Third, if at climax the life situation of the protagonist is both 
positive and negative, how to express it so that the two charges 
remain separated in the audience’s experience and don’t cancel 
each other out, and you end up saying nothing? 


Once you discover your Controlling Idea, respect it. Never allow 
yourself the luxury of thinking, “It’s just entertainment.” What, 
after all, is “entertainment”? Entertainment is the ritual of sit¬ 
ting in the dark, staring at a screen, investing tremendous con¬ 
centration and energy into what one hopes will be a satisfying, 
meaningful emotional experience. Any film that hooks, holds, 
and pays off the story ritual is entertainment. Whether it be 
(France/1959), LA DOLCE VITA (Italy/1960) or SNOW WHITE 
AND THE THREE STOOGES (USA/1961), no story is innocent. 
All coherent tales express an idea veiled inside an emotional 

In 388 b.c. Plato urged the city fathers of Athens to exile all 
poets and storytellers. They are a threat to society, he argued. 
Writers deal with ideas, but not in the open, rational manner of 
philosophers. Instead, they conceal their ideas inside the seductive 
emotions of art. Yet felt ideas, as Plato pointed out, are ideas 
nonetheless. Every effective story sends a charged idea out to us, in 
effect compelling the idea into us, so that we must believe. In fact, 
the persuasive power of a story is so great that we may believe its 


meaning even if we find it morally repellent. Storytellers, Plato 
insisted, are dangerous people. He was right. 

Consider DEATH WISH. Its Controlling Idea is “Justice tri¬ 
umphs when citizens take the law into their own hands and kill the 
people who need killing.” Of all the vile ideas in human history, 
this is the vilest. Armed with it, the Nazis devastated Europe. Hitler 
believed he would turn Europe into a paradise once he killed the 
people who needed killing . . . and he had his list. 

When DEATH WISH opened, newspaper reviewers across the 
country were morally outraged at the sight of Charles Bronson 
stalking Manhattan, gunning down people if they happened to look 
like muggers: “Hollywood thinks this passes for justice?” they 
ranted. “Whatever became of due process of law?” But in nearly 
every review I read, at some point the critic noted: “. . . and yet the 
audience seemed to enjoy it.” A code for: “. . . and so did the critic.” 
Critics never cite the pleasure of the audience unless they share it. 
In spite of their scandalized sensibilities, the film got to them too. 

On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to live in a country where 
DEATH WISH couldn’t be made. I oppose all censorship. In pur¬ 
suit of truth, we must willingly suffer the ugliest of lies. We must, 
as Justice Holmes argued, trust the marketplace of ideas. If 
everyone is given a voice, even the irrationally radical or cruelly 
reactionary, humanity will sort through all possibilities and make 
the right choice. No civilization, including Plato’s, has ever been 
destroyed because its citizens learned too much truth. 

Authoritative personalities, like Plato, fear the threat that comes 
not from idea, but from emotion. Those in power never want us to 
feel. Thought can be controlled and manipulated, but emotion is 
willful and unpredictable. Artists threaten authority by exposing lies 
and inspiring passion for change. This is why when tyrants seize 
power, their firing squads aim at the heart of the writer. 

Lastly, given story's power to influence, we need to look at the 
issue of an artist’s social responsibility. I believe we have no 
responsibility to cure social ills or renew faith in humanity, to uplift 
the spirits of society or even express our inner being. We have only 
one responsibility: to tell the truth. Therefore, study your Story 


Climax and extract from it your Controlling Idea. But before you 
take another step, ask yourself this question: Is this the truth? Do I 
believe in the meaning of my story? If the answer is no, toss it and 
start again. If yes, do everything possible to get your work into the 
world. For although an artist may, in his private life, lie to others, 
even to himself, when he creates he tells the truth; and in a world 
of lies and liars, an honest work of art is always an act of social 




When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination 
is taxed to its utmost—and will produce its richest ideas. Given 
total freedom the work is likely to sprawl. 

—T. S. Eliot 


From what material do we create the scenes that will one day walk 
and talk their way across the screen? What is the clay we twist and 
shape, keep or throw away? What is the “substance” of story? 

In all other arts the answer is self-evident. The composer has 
his instrument and the notes it sounds. The dancer calls her body 
her instrument. Sculptors chisel stone. Painters stir paint. All 
artists can lay hands on the raw material of their art—except the 
writer. For at the nucleus of a story is a “substance,” like the energy 
swirling in an atom, that’s never directly seen, heard, or touched, 
yet we know it and feel it. The stuff of story is alive but intangible. 

“Intangible?” I hear you thinking. “But I have my words. Dia¬ 
logue, description. I can put hands on my pages. The writer’s raw 
material is language.” In fact, it’s not, and the careers of many tal¬ 
ented writers, especially those who come to screenwriting after a 
strong literary education, flounder because of the disastrous mis¬ 
understanding of this principle. For just as glass is a medium for 
light, air a medium for sound, language is only a medium, one of 
many, in fact, for storytelling. Something far more profound than 
mere words beats at the heart of a story. 

And at the opposite end of story sits another equally profound 
phenomenon: the audience’s reaction to this substance. When you 
think about it, going to the movies is bizarre. Hundreds of 
strangers sit in a blackened room, elbow to elbow, for two or more 
hours. They don’t go to the toilet or get a smoke. Instead, they stare 
wide-eyed at a screen, investing more uninterrupted concentration 



than they give to work, paying money to suffer emotions they’d do 
anything to avoid in life. From this perspective, a second question 
arises: What is the source of story energy? How does it compel 
such intense mental and sentient attention from the audience? 
How do stories work? 

The answers to these questions come when the artist explores 
the creative process subjective ly. To understand the substance of 
story and how it performs, you need to view your work from the 
inside out, from the center of your character, looking out at the 
world through your character’s eyes, experiencing the story as if 
you were the living character yourself. To slip into this subjective 
and highly imaginative point of view, you need to look closely at 
this creature you intend to inhabit, a character. Or more specifically, 
a protagonist. For although the protagonist is a character like any 
other, as the central and essential role, he embodies all aspects of 
character in absolute terms. 


Generally, the protagonist is a single character. A story, however, 
could be driven by a duo, such as THELMA & LOUISE; a trio, THE 
of people, the proletariat, create a massive Plural-Protagonist. 

For two or more characters to form a Plural-Protagonist, two 
conditions must be met: First, all individuals in the group share the 
same desire. Second, in the struggle to achieve this desire, they 
mutually suffer and benefit. If one has a success, all benefit. If one 
has a setback, all suffer. Within a Plural-Protagonist, motivation, 
action, and consequence are communal. 

A story may, on the other hand, be Multiprotagonist. Here, 
unlike the Plural-Protagonist, characters pursue separate and indi¬ 
vidual desires, suffering and benefiting independently: PULP FIC¬ 


HIGH HOPES. Robert Altman is the master of this design: A 

On screen the Multiprotagonist story is as old as GRAND 
HOTEL; in the novel older still, War and Peace; in the theatre older 
yet, A Midsummer Night's Dream. Multiprotagonist stories become 
Multiplot stories. Rather than driving the telling through the 
focused desire of a protagonist, either single or plural, these works 
weave a number of smaller stories, each with its own protagonist, 
to create a dynamic portrait of a specific society. 

The protagonist need not be human. It may be an animal, 
BABE, or a cartoon, BUGS BUNNY, or even an inanimate object, 
such as the hero of the children's story The Little Engine That Could. 
Anything that can be given a free will and the capacity to desire, 
take action, and suffer the consequences can be a protagonist. 

It’s even possible, in rare cases, to switch protagonists halfway 
through a story. PSYCHO does this, making the shower murder 
both an emotional and a formal jolt. With the protagonist dead, the 
audience is momentarily confused; whom is this movie about? The 
answer is a Plural-Protagonist as the victim's sister, boyfriend, and 
a private detective take over the story. But no matter whether the 
story’s protagonist is single, multi or plural, no matter how he is 
characterized, all protagonists have certain hallmark qualities, and 
the first is willpower. 

A PROTAGONIST is a willful character. 

Other characters may be dogged, even inflexible, but the pro¬ 
tagonist in particular is a willful being. The exact quantity of this 
willpower, however, may not be measurable. A fine story is not nec¬ 
essarily the struggle of a gigantic will versus absolute forces of 
inevitability. Quality of will is as important as quantity. A protago¬ 
nist’s willpower may be less than that of the biblical Job, but pow¬ 
erful enough to sustain desire through conflict and ultimately take 
actions that create meaningful and irreversible change. 

What’s more, the true strength of the protagonist’s will may 
hide behind a passive characterization. Consider Blanche DuBois, 


protagonist of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. At first glance she 
seems weak, drifting and will-less, only wanting, she says, to live in 
reality. Yet beneath her frail characterization, Blanche’s deep char¬ 
acter owns a powerful will that drives her unconscious desire: What 
she really wants is to escape from reality. So Blanche does everything 
she can to buffer herself against the ugly world that engulfs her: 
She acts the grand dame, puts doilies on frayed furniture, lamp¬ 
shades on naked light bulbs, tries to make a Prince Charming out 
of a dullard. When none of this succeeds, she takes the final escape 
from reality—she goes insane. 

On the other hand, while Blanche only seems passive, the truly 
passive protagonist is a regrettably common mistake. A story 
cannot be told about a protagonist who doesn’t want anything, who 
cannot make decisions, whose actions effect no change at any level. 

The PROTAGONIST has a conscious desire. 

Rather, the protagonist’s will impels a known desire. The pro¬ 
tagonist has a need or goal, an object of desire, and knows it. If you 
could pull your protagonist aside, whisper in his ear, “What do you 
want?” he would have an answer: “I’d like X today, Y next week, but 
in the end I want Z.” The protagonist’s object of desire may be 
external: the destruction of the shark in JAWS, or internal: maturity 
in BIG. In either case, the protagonist knows what he wants, and 
for many characters a simple, clear, conscious desire is sufficient. 

The PROTAGONIST may also have a self-contradictory 

unconscious desire. 

However, the most memorable, fascinating characters tend to 
have not only a conscious but an unconscious desire. Although 
these complex protagonists are unaware of their subconscious 
need, the audience senses it, perceiving in them an inner contra¬ 
diction. The conscious and unconscious desires of a multidimen¬ 
sional protagonist contradict each other. What he believes he 
wants is the antithesis of what he actually but unwittingly wants. 


This is self-evident. What would be the point of giving a character 
a subconscious desire if it happens to be the very thing he know¬ 
ingly seeks? 

The PROTAGONIST has the capacities to pursue the 

Object of Desire convincingly. 

The protagonist’s characterization must be appropriate. He 
needs a believable combination of qualities in the right balance to 
pursue his desires. This doesn’t mean he’ll get what he wants. He 
may fail. But the character’s desires must be realistic enough in 
relationship to his will and capacities for the audience to believe 
that he could be doing what they see him doing and that he has a 
chance for fulfillment. 

The PROTAGONIST must have at least a chance to attain 

his desire. 

An audience has no patience for a protagonist who lacks all 
possibility of realizing his desire. The reason is simple: No one 
believes this of his own life. No one believes he doesn’t have even 
the smallest chance of fulfilling his wishes. But if we were to pull 
the camera back on life, the grand overview might lead us to con¬ 
clude that, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, "The mass of 
men lead lives of quiet desperation,” that most people waste their 
precious time and die with the feeling they’ve fallen short of their 
dreams. As honest as this painful insight may be, we cannot allow 
ourselves to believe it. Instead, we carry hope to the end. 

Hope, after all, is not unreasonable. It’s simply hypothetical. “If 
this ... if that ... if I learn more ... if I love more ... if I disci¬ 
pline myself ... if I win the lottery ... if things change, then I’ll 
have a chance of getting from life what I want.” We all carry hope 
in our hearts, no matter the odds against us. A protagonist, there¬ 
fore, who's literally hopeless, who hasn’t even the minimal capacity 
to achieve his desire, cannot interest us. 


The PROTAGONIST has the will and capacity to pursue 
the object of his conscious and/or unconscious desire 
to the end of the line, to the human limit established 
by setting and genre. 

The art of story is not about the middle ground, but about the 
pendulum of existence swinging to the limits, about life lived in 
its most intense states. We explore the middle ranges of experi¬ 
ence, but only as a path to the end of the line. The audience senses 
that limit and wants it reached. For no matter how intimate or 
epic the setting, instinctively the audience draws a circle around 
the characters and their world, a circumference of experience 
that’s defined by the nature of the fictional reality. This line may 
reach inward to the soul, outward into the universe, or in both 
directions at once. The audience, therefore, expects the storyteller 
to be an artist of vision who can take his story to those distant 
depths and ranges. 

A STORY must build to a final action beyond which the 
audience cannot imagine another. 

In other words, a film cannot send its audience to the street 
rewriting it: “Happy ending ... but shouldn’t she have settled 
things with her father? Shouldn’t she have broken up with Ed 
before she moved in with Mac? Shouldn’t she have . . Or: 
“Downer . . . the guy’s dead, but why didn’t he call the cops? And 
didn’t he keep a gun under the dash, and shouldn’t he have ... ?” 
If people exit imagining scenes they thought they should have seen 
before or after the ending we give them, they will be less than 
happy moviegoers. We’re supposed to be better writers than they. 
The audience wants to be taken to the limit, to where all questions 
are answered, all emotion satisfied—the end of the line. 

The protagonist takes us to this limit. He must have it within 
himself to pursue his desire to the boundaries of human experi¬ 
ence in depth, breadth, or both, to reach absolute and irreversible 
change. This, by the way, doesn’t mean your film can’t have a 


sequel; your protagonist may have more tales to tell. It means that 
each story must find closure for itself. 

The PROTAGONIST must be empathetic; he may or may 

not be sympathetic. 

Sympathetic means likable. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, for 
example, or Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in their typical 
roles: The moment they step onscreen, we like them. We’d want 
them as friends, family members, or lovers. They have an innate 
likability and evoke sympathy. Empathy, however, is a more pro¬ 
found response. 

Empathetic means “like me.” Deep within the protagonist the 
audience recognizes a certain shared humanity. Character and 
audience are not alike in every fashion, of course; they may share 
only a single quality. But there's something about the character 
that strikes a chord. In that moment of recognition, the audience 
suddenly and instinctively wants the protagonist to achieve what¬ 
ever it is that he desires. 

The unconscious logic of the audience runs like this: “This char¬ 
acter is like me. Therefore, I want him to have whatever it is he 
wants, because if I were he in those circumstances, I'd want the 
same thing for myself.” Hollywood has many synonymic expressions 
for this connection: “somebody to get behind,” “someone to root for.” 
All describe the empathetic connection that the audience strikes 
between itself and the protagonist. An audience may, if so moved, 
empathize with every character in your film, but it must empathize 
with your protagonist. If not, the audience/story bond is broken. 


The audience's emotional involvement is held by the glue of 
empathy. If the writer fails to fuse a bond between filmgoer and 
protagonist, we sit outside feeling nothing. Involvement has 
nothing to do with evoking altruism or compassion. We empathize 
for very personal, if not egocentric, reasons. When we identify with 


a protagonist and his desires in life, we are in fact rooting for our 
own desires in life. Through empathy, the vicarious linking of our¬ 
selves to a fictional human being, we test and stretch our 
humanity. The gift of story is the opportunity to live lives beyond 
our own, to desire and struggle in a myriad of worlds and times, at 
all the various depths of our being. 

Empathy, therefore, is absolute, while sympathy is optional. 
We've all met likable people who don’t draw our compassion. A 
protagonist, accordingly, may or may not be pleasant. Unaware of 
the difference between sympathy and empathy, some writers auto¬ 
matically devise nice-guy heroes, fearing that if the star role isn’t 
nice, the audience won’t relate. Uncountable commercial disasters, 
however, have starred charming protagonists. Likability is no guar¬ 
antee of audience involvement; it’s merely an aspect of characteri¬ 
zation. The audience identifies with deep character, with innate 
qualities revealed through choice under pressure. 

At first glance creating empathy does not seem difficult. The pro¬ 
tagonist is a human being; the audience is full of human beings. As 
the filmgoer looks up on the screen, he recognizes the character's 
humanity, senses that he shares it, identifies with the protagonist, 
and dives into the story. Indeed, in the hands of the greatest writers, 
even the most unsympathetic character can be made empathetic. 

Macbeth, for example, viewed objectively, is monstrous. He 
butchers a kindly old King while the man is sleeping, a King who 
had never done Macbeth any harm—in fact, that very day he'd 
given Macbeth a royal promotion. Macbeth then murders two ser¬ 
vants of the King to blame the deed on them. He kills his best 
friend. Finally he orders the assassination of the wife and infant 
children of his enemy. He’s a ruthless killer; yet, in Shakespeare’s 
hands he becomes a tragic, empathetic hero. 

The Bard accomplished this feat by giving Macbeth a con¬ 
science. As he wanders in soliloquy, wondering, agonizing, “Why 
am I doing this? What kind of a man am I?” the audience listens 
and thinks, “What kind? Guilt-ridden . . . just like me. I feel bad 
when I'm thinking about doing bad things. I feel awful when I do 
them and afterward there’s no end to the guilt. Macbeth is a 


human being; he has a conscience just like mine." In fact, we’re so 
drawn to Macbeth’s writhing soul, we feel a tragic loss when at 
climax Macduff decapitates him. Macbeth is a breathtaking display 
of the godlike power of the writer to find an empathetic center in 
an otherwise contemptible character. 

On the other hand, in recent years many films, despite otherwise 
splendid qualities, have crashed on these rocks because they failed to 
create an audience bond, fust one example of many: INTERVIEW 
WITH A VAMPIRE. The audience’s reaction to Brad Pitt’s Louis went 
like this: “If I were Louis, caught in his hell-after-death, I'd end it in a 
flash. Bad luck he’s a vampire. Wouldn’t wish that on anybody. But if 
he finds it revolting to suck the life out of innocent victims, if he hates 
himself for turning a child into a devil, if he’s tired of rat blood, he 
should take this simple solution: Wait for sunrise, and poof, it’s over.” 
Although Anne Rice’s novel steered us through Louis’s thoughts and 
feelings until we fell into empathy with him, the dispassionate eye of 
the camera sees him for what he is, a whining fraud. Audiences 
always disassociate themselves from hypocrites. 


When you sit down to write, the musing begins: “How to start? 
What would my character do?” 

Your character, indeed all characters, in the pursuit of any desire, 
at any moment in story, will always take the minimum, conservative 
action from his point of view. All human beings always do. Humanity 
is fundamentally conservative, as indeed is all of nature. No 
organism ever expends more energy than necessary, risks anything it 
doesn’t have to, or takes any action unless it must. Why should it? If 
a task can be done in an easy way without risk of loss or pain, or the 
expenditure of energy, why would any creature do the more difficult, 
dangerous, or enervating thing? It won’t. Nature doesn’t allow it. . . 
and human nature is just an aspect of universal nature. 

In life we often see people, even animals, acting with extreme 
behavior that seems unnecessary, if not stupid. But this is our 
objective view of their situation. Subjectively, from within the expe- 


rience of the creature, this apparently intemperate action was min¬ 
imal, conservative, and necessary. What’s thought “conservative,” 
after all, is always relative to point of view. 

For example: If a normal person wanted to get into a house, 
he’d take the minimum and conservative action. He'd knock on the 
door, thinking, “If I knock, the door’ll be opened. I’ll be invited in 
and that’ll be a positive step toward my desire.” A martial arts hero, 
however, as a conservative first step, might karate-chop the door to 
splinters, feeling that this is prudent and minimal. 

What is necessary but minimal and conservative is relative to 
the point of view of each character at each precise moment. In life, 
for example, I say to myself: “If I cross the street now, that car’s far 
enough away for the driver to see me in time, slow down if needed, 
and I’ll get across.” Or: “I can’t find Dolores’s phone number. But I 
know that my friend Jack has it in his Rolodex. If I call him in the 
midst of his busy day, because he’s my friend, he’ll interrupt what 
he’s doing and give me the number.” 

In other words, in life we take an action consciously or uncon¬ 
sciously (and life is spontaneous most of the time as we open our 
mouths or take a step), thinking or sensing within to this effect: “If in 
these circumstances I take this minimum, conservative action, the 
world will react to me in a fashion that will be a positive step toward 
getting me what I want.” And in life, 99 percent of the time we are 
right. The driver sees you in time, taps the brakes, and you reach the 
other side safely. You call Jack and apologize for interrupting him. He 
says, “No problem,” and gives you the number. This is the great mass 
of experience, hour by hour, in life. BUT NEVER, EVER IN A STORY. 

The grand difference between story and life is that in story we 
cast out the minutiae of daily existence in which human beings 
take actions expecting a certain enabling reaction from the world, 
and, more or less, get what they expect. 

In story, we concentrate on that moment, and only 
that moment, in which a character takes an action 
expecting a useful reaction from his world, but instead 
the effect of his action is to provoke forces of antago- 


nism. The world of the character reacts differently than 
expected, more powerfully than expected, or both. 

I pick up the phone, call Jack, and say: “Sorry to bother you, but 
I can’t find Dolores’s phone number. Could you—” and he shouts: 
“Dolores? Dolores! How dare you ask me for her number?” and 
slams down the phone. Suddenly, life is interesting. 


This chapter seeks the substance of story as seen from the perspective 
of a writer who in his imagination has placed himself at the very center 
of the character he’s creating. The “center” of a human being, that irre¬ 
ducible particularity of the innermost self, is the awareness you cany 
with you twenty-four hours a day that watches you do everything you 
do, that chides you when you get things wrong, or compliments you on 
those rare occasions when you get things right. It’s that deep observer 
that comes to you when you’re going through the most agonizing expe¬ 
rience of your life, collapsed on the floor, crying your heart out. . . that 
little voice that says, “Your mascara is running.” This inner eye is 
you: your identity, your ego, the conscious focus of your being. Every¬ 
thing outside this subjective core is the objective world of a character. 

A character’s world can be imagined as a series of concentric 
circles surrounding a core of raw identity or awareness, circles that 
mark the levels of conflict in a character’s life. The inner circle or 
level is his own self and conflicts arising from the elements of his 
nature: mind, body, emotion. 

When, for example, a character takes an action, his mind may 
not react the way he anticipates. His thoughts may not be as quick, 
as insightful, as witty as he expected. His body may not react as he 
imagined. It may not be strong enough or deft enough for a partic¬ 
ular task. And we all know how emotions betray us. So the closest 
circle of antagonism in the world of a character is his own being: 
feelings and emotions, mind and body, all or any of which may or 
may not react from one moment to the next the way he expects. As 
often as not, we are our own worst enemies. 



The second circle inscribes personal relationships, unions of 
intimacy deeper than the social role. Social convention assigns the 
outer roles we play. At the moment, for example, we’re playing 
teacher/student. Someday, however, our paths may cross and we 
may decide to change our professional relationship to friendship. 
In the same manner, parent/child begins as social roles that may 
or may not go deeper than that. Many of us go through life in 
parent/child relationships that never deepen beyond social defini¬ 
tions of authority and rebellion. Not until we set the conventional 
role aside do we find the true intimacy of family, friends, and 
lovers—who then do not react the way we expect and become the 
second level of personal conflict. 

The third circle marks the level of extra-personal conflict — 


all the sources of antagonism outside the personal: conflict with 
social institutions and individuals—govemment/citizen, church/ 
worshipper; corporation/client; conflict with individuals—cop/ 
criminal/victim, boss/worker, customer/waiter, doctor/patient; and 
conflict with both man-made and natural environments—time, 
space, and every object in it. 


STORY is born in that place where the subjective and 

objective realms touch. 

The protagonist seeks an object of desire beyond his reach. Con¬ 
sciously or unconsciously he chooses to take a particular action, 
motivated by the thought or feeling that this act will cause the 
world to react in a way that will be a positive step toward achieving 
his desire. From his subjective point of view the action he has 
chosen seems minimal, conservative, yet sufficient to effect the 
reaction he wants. But the moment he takes this action, the objec¬ 
tive realm of his inner life, personal relationships, or extra-personal 
world, or a combination of these, react in a way that’s more pow¬ 
erful or different than he expected. 


This reaction from his world blocks his desire, thwarting him 
and bending him further from his desire than he was before he took 
this action. Rather than evoking cooperation from his world, his 
action provokes forces of antagonism that open up the gap between 
his subjective expectation and the objective result, between what he 
thought would happen when he took his action and what in fact 
does happen between his sense of probability and true necessity. 

Every human being acts, from one moment to the next, know¬ 
ingly or unknowingly, on his sense of probability, on what he 
expects, in all likelihood, to happen when he takes an action. We all 
walk this earth thinking, or at least hoping, that we understand 
ourselves, our intimates, society, and the world. We behave 
according to what we believe to be the truth of ourselves, the people 
around us, and the environment. But this is a truth we cannot 
know absolutely. It’s what we believe to be true. 

We also believe we're free to make any decision whatsoever to 
take any action whatsoever. But every choice and action we make 
and take, spontaneous or deliberate, is rooted in the sum total of 
our experience, in what has happened to us in actuality, imagina¬ 
tion, or dream to that moment. We then choose to act based on 
what this gathering of life tells us will be the probable reaction 
from our world. It’s only then, when we take action, that we dis¬ 
cover necessity. 

Necessity is absolute truth. Necessity is what in fact happens 
when we act. This truth is known —and can only be known —when 
we take action into the depth and breadth of our world and brave 
its reaction. This reaction is the truth of our existence at that pre¬ 
cise moment, no matter what we believed the moment before. 
Necessity is what must and does actually happen, as opposed to 
probability, which is what we hope or expect to happen. 

As in life, so in fiction. When objective necessity contradicts a 
character’s sense of probability, a gap suddenly cracks open in the 
fictional reality. This gap is the point where the subjective and 
objective realms collide, the difference between anticipation and 
result, between the world as the character perceived it before acting 
and the truth he discovers in action. 


Once the gap in reality splits open, the character, being willful 
and having capacity, senses or realizes that he cannot get what he 
wants in a minimal, conservative way. He must gather himself and 
struggle through this gap to take a second action. This next action 
is something the character would not have wanted to do in the first 
case because it not only demands more willpower and forces him 
to dig more deeply into his human capacity, but most important, 
the second action puts him at risk. He now stands to lose in order to 


We'd all like to have our cake and eat it too. In a state of jeopardy, 
on the other hand, we must risk something that we want or have in 
order to gain something else that we want or to protect something 
we have—a dilemma we strive to avoid. 

Here’s a simple test to apply to any story. Ask: What is the risk? 
What does the protagonist stand to lose if he does not get what he 
wants? More specifically, what’s the worst thing that will happen to 
the protagonist if he does not achieve his desire? 

If this question cannot be answered in a compelling way, the 
story is misconceived at its core. For example, if the answer is: 
“Should the protagonist fail, life would go back to normal,” this 
story is not worth telling. What the protagonist wants is of no real 
value, and a story of someone pursuing something of little or no 
value is the definition of boredom. 

Life teaches that the measure of the value of any human desire 
is in direct proportion to the risk involved in its pursuit. The higher 
the value, the higher the risk. We give the ultimate values to those 
things that demand the ultimate risks—our freedom, our lives, our 
souls. This imperative of risk, however, is far more than an aes¬ 
thetic principle, it’s rooted in the deepest source of our art. For we 
not only create stories as metaphors for life, we create them as 
metaphors for meaningful life—and to live meaningfully is to be at 
perpetual risk. 

Examine your own desires. What’s true of you will be true of 


every character you write. You wish to write for the cinema, the 
foremost media of creative expression in the world today; you wish 
to give us works of beauty and meaning that help shape our vision 
of reality; in return you would like to be acknowledged. It's a noble 
ambition and a grand achievement to fulfill. And because you’re a 
serious artist, you’re willing to risk vital aspects of your life to live 
that dream. 

You’re willing to risk time. You know that even the most talented 
writers—Oliver Stone, Lawrence Kasdan, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala— 
didn’t find success until they were in their thirties or forties, and just 
as it takes a decade or more to make a good doctor or teacher, it takes 
ten or more years of adult life to find something to say that tens of 
millions of people want to hear, and ten or more years and often as 
many screenplays written and unsold to master this demanding craft. 

You’re willing to risk money. You know that if you were to take 
the same hard work and creativity that goes into a decade of unsold 
screenplays and apply it to a normal profession, you could retire 
before you see your first script on the screen. 

You’re willing to risk people. Each morning you go to your desk 
and enter the imagined world of your characters. You dream and 
write until the sun’s setting and your head's throbbing. So you turn 
off your word processor to be with the person you love. Except that, 
while you can turn off your machine, you can’t turn off your imagi¬ 
nation. As you sit at dinner, your characters are still running 
through your head and you’re wishing there was a notepad next to 
your plate. Sooner or later, the person you love will say: "You know 
. . . you’re not really here.” Which is true. Half the time you’re 
somewhere else, and no one wants to live with somebody who isn’t 
really there. 

The writer places time, money, and people at risk because his 
ambition has life-defining force. What’s true for the writer is true 
for every character he creates: 

The measure of the value of a character's desire is in 
direct proportion to the risk he's willing to take to 
achieve it; the greater the value, the greater the risk. 



The protagonist's first action has aroused forces of antagonism that 
block his desire and spring open a gap between anticipation and 
result, disconfirming his notions of reality, putting him in greater 
conflict with his world, at even greater risk. But the resilient 
human mind quickly remakes reality into a larger pattern that 
incorporates this disconfirmation, this unexpected reaction. Now 
he takes a second, more difficult and risk-taking action, an action 
consistent with his revised vision of reality, an action based on his 
new expectations of the world. But again his action provokes forces 


of antagonism, splitting open a gap in his reality. So he adjusts to 
the unexpected, ups the ante yet again and decides to take an action 
that he feels is consistent with his amended sense of things. He 
reaches even more deeply into his capacities and willpower, puts 
himself at greater risk, and takes a third action. 

Perhaps this action achieves a positive result, and for the 
moment he takes a step toward his desire, but with his next action, 
the gap will again spring open. Now he must take an even more 
difficult action that demands even more willpower, more capacity, 
and more risk. Over and over again in a progression, rather than 
cooperation, his actions provoke forces of antagonism, opening 
gaps in his reality. This pattern repeats on various levels to the end 
of the line, to a final action beyond which the audience cannot 
imagine another. 

These cracks in moment-to-moment reality mark the difference 
between the dramatic and the prosaic, between action and activity. 
True action is physical, vocal, or mental movement that opens gaps 
in expectation and creates significant change. Mere activity is 
behavior in which what is expected happens, generating either no 
change or trivial change. 

But the gap between expectation and result is far more than a 
matter of cause and effect. In the most profound sense, the break 
between the cause as it seemed and the effect as it turns out marks 
the point where the human spirit and the world meet. On one side is 
the world as we believe it to be, on the other is reality as it actually is. 
In this gap is the nexus of story, the caldron that cooks our tellings. 
Here the writer finds the most powerful, life-bending moments. The 
only way we can reach this crucial junction is by working from the 
inside out. 


Why must we do this? Why during the creation of a scene must we 
find our way to the center of each character and experience it from 
his point of view? What do we gain when we do? What do we sacri¬ 
fice if we don’t? 


Like anthropologists, we could, for example, discover social and 
environmental truths through careful observations. Like note¬ 
taking psychologists, we could find behavioral truths. We could, by 
working from the outside in, render a surface of character that’s 
genuine, even fascinating. But the one crucial dimension we would 
not create is emotional truth. 

The only reliable source of emotional truth is yourself. If you 
stay outside your characters, you inevitably write emotional cliches. 
To create revealing human reactions, you must not only get inside 
your character, but get inside yourself. So, how to do this? How, as 
you sit at your desk, do you crawl inside the head of your character 
to feel your heart pounding, your palms sweating, a knot in your 
belly, tears in your eyes, laughter in your heart, sexual arousal, 
anger, outrage, compassion, sadness, joy, or any of the uncountable 
responses along the spectrum of human emotions? 

You’ve determined that a certain event must take place in your 
story, a situation to be progressed and turned. How to write a scene 
of insightful emotions? You could ask: How should someone take this 
action? But that leads to cliches and moralizing. Or you could ask: 
How might someone do this? But that leads to writing “cute”—clever 
but dishonest. Or: “If my character were in these circumstances, 
what would he do?” But that puts you at a distance, picturing your 
character walking the stage of his life, guessing at his emotions, and 
guesses are invariably cliches. Or you could ask: “If I were in these 
circumstances, what would I do?” As this question plays on your 
imagination, it may start your heart pounding, but obviously you’re 
not the character. Although it may be an honest emotion for you, 
your character might do the reverse. So what do you do? 

You ask: “If I were this character in these circumstances, what 
would I do?” Using Stanislavski’s “Magic if,” you act the role. It is 
no accident that many of the greatest playwrights from Euripides to 
Shakespeare to Pinter, and screenwriters from D. W. Griffith to 
Ruth Gordon to John Sayles were also actors. Writers are improvi- 
sationalists who perform sitting at their word processors, pacing 
their rooms, acting all their characters: man, woman, child, mon¬ 
ster. We act in our imaginations until honest, character-specific 


emotions flow in our blood. When a scene is emotionally mean¬ 
ingful to us, we can trust that it’ll be meaningful to the audience. 
By creating work that moves us, we move them. 


To illustrate writing from the inside out, I’ll use one of the most 
famous and brilliantly written scenes in film, the second act climax 
of CHINATOWN by screenwriter Robert Towne. I’ll work from the 
scene as performed on screen, but it can also be found in the third 
draft of Towne’s screenplay, dated October 9,1973. 


Private detective J. J. Gittes is investigating the death of Hollis Mul- 
wray, commissioner of the Los Angeles Department of Water and 
Power. Mulwray has apparently drowned in a reservoir, and the 
crime baffles Gittes’s rival, Police Lieutenant Escobar. Near the end 
of the Act Two, Gittes has narrowed suspects and motives to two: 
either a conspiracy of millionaires led by the ruthless Noah Cross 
killed Mulwray for political power and riches; or Evelyn Mulwray 
killed her husband in a jealous rage after he was found with 
another woman. 

Gittes follows Evelyn to a house in Santa Monica. Peering 
through a window, he sees the “other woman,’’ seemingly drugged 
and held prisoner. When Evelyn comes out to her car, he forces her 
to talk and she claims that the woman is her sister. Gittes knows 
she doesn't have a sister, but for the moment says nothing. 

The next morning he discovers what appears to be the dead 
man’s eyeglasses in a salt water pond at the Mulwray home in the 
hills above L.A. Now he knows how and where the man was killed. 
With this evidence he goes back to Santa Monica to confront 
Evelyn and turn her over to Escobar, who's threatening to pull 
Gittes’s private investigator's license. 



J. J. GITTES, while working for the district attorney, fell in love 
with a woman in Chinatown and while trying to help her somehow 
caused her death. He resigned and became a PI, hoping to escape 
corrupt politics and his tragic past. But now he's drawn back into 
both. What's worse, he finds himself in this predicament because, 
days before the murder, he was duped into investigating Mulwray 
for adultery. Someone’s made a fool of Gittes and he’s a man of 
excessive pride. Behind his cool demeanor is an impulsive risk- 
taker; his sarcastic cynicism masks an idealist’s hunger for justice. 
To further complicate matters, he’s fallen in love with Evelyn Mul¬ 
wray. Gittes’s scene objective: to find the truth. 

EVELYN MULWRAY is the victim’s wife and daughter of Noah 
Cross. She’s nervous and defensive when questioned about her 
husband; she stammers when her father is mentioned. She is, we 
sense, a woman with something to hide. She has hired Gittes to 
look into the murder of her husband, perhaps to conceal her own 
guilt. During the investigation, however, she seems drawn to him. 
After a close escape from some thugs, they make love. Evelyn’s 
scene objective: to hide her secret and escape with Katherine. 

KHAN is Evelyn’s servant. Now that she’s widowed, he also 
sees himself as her bodyguard. He prides himself on his digni¬ 
fied manner and ability to handle difficult situations. Khan's 
scene objective: to protect evelyn. 

KATHERINE is a shy innocent who has lead a very protected 
life. Katherine’s scene objective: to obey evelyn. 



Gittes drives through Los Angeles. 

To work from the inside out , slip in Gittes’ mind while he 
drives to Evelyn’s hideaway. Imagine yourself in Gittes ' 


pov. As the streets roll past, you ask: 

“If I were Gittes at this moment, what would I do?” 

Letting your imagination roam, the answer comes: 

“Rehearse. I always rehearse in my head before taking on 
life’s big confrontations.” 

Now work deeper into Gittes’s emotions and psyche: 

Hands white-knuckled on the steering wheel, thoughts 
racing: “She killed him, then used me. She lied to me, came 
on to me. Man, I fell for her. My guts are in a knot, but I’ll 
be cool. I’ll stroll to the door, step in and accuse her. She 
lies. I send for the cops. She plays innocent, a few tears. 
But I stay ice cold, show her Mulwray’s glasses, then lay 
out how she did it, step by step, as if I was there. She con¬ 
fesses. I turn her over to Escobar; I’m off the hook.” 


Gittes’ car speeds into the driveway. 

You continue working from inside Gittes ’ pov, thinking: 

“I’ll be cool, I’ll be cool. . .” Suddenly, with the sight of her 
house, an image of Evelyn flashes in your imagination. A 
rush of anger. A gap cracks open between your cool resolve 
and your fury. 

The Buick SCREECHES to a halt. Gittes jumps out. 

“To hell with her!” 

Gittes SLAMS the car door and bolts up the steps. 


“Grab her now, before she runs.” 

He twists the door knob, find it locked, then BANGS on the door. 

“Goddamn it.” 


KHAN, Evelyn’s Chinese servant, hears POUNDING and heads 
for the door. 

As characters enter and exit, shift back and forth in your 
imagination, taking the pov of one, then the other. Moving 
to Khan’s point of view, ask yourself: 

“If I were Khan at this moment, what would I think, feel, do?” 

As you settle into this character’s psyche, your thoughts 
run to: 

“Who the hell’s that?” Paste on a butler’s smile. “Ten to 
one it’s that loud mouth detective again. I’ll handle him.” 

Khan unlocks the door and finds Gittes on the step. 


You wait. 

Shifting back into Gittes’ mind: 

“That snotty butler again.” 


You wait. Chow hoy kye dye! 

(translation: Puck 
off, punk) 


Gittes shoves Khan aside and pushes into the house. 

As you switch back to Khan, the sudden gap between 
expectation and result inverts your smile: 

Confusion, anger. “He not only barges in but insults me in 
Cantonese! Throw him out!” 

Gittes looks up as Evelyn appears on the stairs behind Khan, 
nervously adjusting her necklace as she descends. 

As Khan: 

“It’s Mrs. Mulwray. Protect her!” 

Evelyn has been calling Gittes all morning, hoping to get 
his help. After packing for hours, she’s in a hell-bent rush 
to catch the 5:30 train to Mexico. You shift to her pov: 

“If I were Evelyn in this situation, what would I do?” 

Now find your way to the heart of this very complex woman: 

“It’s Jake. T hank God. I know he cares. He’ll help me. How 
do I look?” Hands instinctively flutter to hair, face. “Khan 
looks worried.” 

Evelyn smiles reassuringly to Khan and gestures for him to 


It’s all right, Khan. 

As Evelyn turning back to Gittes: 

Feeling more confident. “Now I’m not alone.” 



How are you? I’ve been 
calling you. 


Gittes turns away and steps into the living room. 

As Gittes: 

“She’s so beautiful. Don’t look at her. Stay tough, man. Be 
ready. She’ll tell lie on lie.” 


. . . Yeah? 

Evelyn follows, searching his face. 

As Evelyn: 

“I can’t get his eye. Something’s bothering him. He looks 


Did you get some sleep? 



“. . . and hungry, poor man.” 


Have you had lunch? Khan 
can fix you something. 


As Gittes: 

“What’s this lunch bullshit? Do it now.” 


Where’s the girl? 

Back in Evelyn’s thoughts as a gap in expectation hies 
open with a shock: 

“Why’s he asking that? What’s gone wrong? Keep calm. 
Feign innocence.” 

Upstairs, why? 

As Gittes: 

“The soft voice, the innocent ‘why?’ Keep cool.” 


I want to see her. 

As Evelyn: 

“What does he want with Katherine? No. I can’t let him see 
her now. Lie. Find out first.” 


. . . She’s having a bath now. 

Why do you want to see her? 

As Gittes: 

Disgusted with her lies. “Don’t let her get to ya.” 


Gittes looks around the room and sees half-packed suitcases. 

“She’s making a run for it. Good thing I got here. Keep 
sharp. She’ll lie again.” 


Going somewhere? 

As Evelyn: 

“Should have told him, but there wasn’t time. Can’t hide it. 
Tell the truth. He’ll understand.” 


Yes, we have a 5:30 train to 

As Gittes, a minor gap opens: 

“What do ya know? Sounds honest. Doesn’t matter. Put an 
end to her bullshit. Let her know you mean business. 
Where’s the phone? There.” 

Gittes picks up the telephone. 

As Evelyn: 

Bewilderment, choking fear. “Who’s he calling?” 


Jake . . . ? 

“He’s dialing. God, help me . . . ” 


As Oittes , ear to the phone: 

“Answer, da mn it.” Hearing the desk sergeant pick up. 


J. J. Gittes for Lt. Escobar. 

As Evelyn: 

“The police!” A rush of adrenaline hits. Panic. “No, no. 
Keep calm. Keep calm. It must he about Hollis. But I can’t 
wait. We have to leave now.” 


Look, what’s the matter? 

What’s wrong? I told you 
we’ve got a 5:30 train— 

As Gittes: 

“Enough! Shut her up.” 


You’re gonna miss your train, 
(into phone) 

Lou, meet me at 1972 Canyon 
Drive . . . yeah, soon as you 

As Evelyn: 

Anger rises. “The fool...” A shred of hope. “But maybe 
he’s calling the police to help me.” 

Why did you do that? 


As Gittes: 

Smug satisfaction. “She’s trying to get tough, but I’ve got 
her now. Feels good. I’m right at home.” 


(tossing his hat on 
the table) 

You know any good criminal 

As Evelyn, trying to close an ever-widening gap: 

“Lawyers? What the hell does he mean?” A chilling fear of 
something terrible about to happen. 



As Gittes: 

“Look at her, cool and collected, playing it innocent to the 


(taking out a silver 
cigarette case) 

Don’t worry. I can recommend 
a couple. They’re expensive, 
but you can afford it. 

Gittes calmly takes a lighter from his pocket, sits down and 
lights a cigarette. 


As Evelyn: 

“My God, he’s threatening me. I slept with him. Look at 
him swagger. Who does he think he is?” Throat tightens in 
anger. “Don’t panic. Handle it. There must he a reason for 


Will you please tell me what 
this is all about? 

As Gittes: 

“Pissed off, are ya? Good. Watch this.” 

Gittes slips the cigarette lighter back into his pocket and with 
the same motion brings out a wrapped handkerchief. He sets 
it on the table and carefully pulls back the four corners of the 
cloth to reveal the eyeglasses. 


I found these in your back¬ 
yard in the pond. They 
belonged to your husband, 
didn’t they . . . didn’t they? 

As Evelyn: 

The gap refuses to close. Dazed. Nothing makes sense. A 
rising dread. “Glasses? In Hollis’ fish pond? What’s he 


I don’t know. Yes, probably. 


As Gittes: 

“An opening. Get her now. Make her confess.” 

(jumping up) 

Yes, positively. That’s where 
he was drowned. 

As Evelyn: 

Stunned. “At home?!” 



As Gittes: 

Fury. “Make her talk. Now!” 


There’s no time to he shocked 
by the truth. The coroner’s 
report proves that he had salt 
water in his lungs when he 
was killed. Just take my word 
for it, all right? Now I want to 
know how it happened, and I 
want to know why, and I 
want to know before Escobar 
gets here because I don’t 
want to lose my license. 


As Evelyn: 

His sneering) livid face pushes into yours. Chaos, para¬ 
lyzing fear, grasping for control. 


I don’t know what you are 
talking about. This is the 
craziest, the most insane 
thing . . . 


Stop it! 

As Gittes: 

Losing control, hands shoot out, grasp her, fingers digging 
in, m a k i n g her wince. But then the look of shock and pain 
in her eyes brings a stab of compassion. A gap opens. Feel¬ 
ings for her struggle against the rage. Hands drop. “She’s 
hurting. Come on, man, she didn’t do it in cold blood, could 
happen to anybody. Give her a chance. Lay it out, point by 
point, but get the truth out of her!” 


I’m gonna make it easy for 
you. You were jealous, you 
had a fight, he fell, hit his 
head ... it was an accident 
. . . but his girl’s a witness. So 
you had to shut her up. You 
don’t have the guts to harm 
her, but you’ve got the money 
to shut her mouth. Yes or no? 


As Evelyn: 

The gap crashes shut with a horrible meaning: “My God, he 
thinks I did it!” 



As Gittes, hearing her emphatic answer: 

“Good. Finally sounds like the truth.” Cooling off. “But 
what the hell’s going on?” 


Who is she? And don’t give 
me that crap about a sister 
because you don’t have a 

As Evelyn: 

The greatest shock of all splits you in two: “He wants to 
know who she is ... God help me.” Weak with years of car¬ 
rying the secret. Back to wall. “If I don’t tell him , he’ll call 
the police, but if I do . . .” No place to turn . . . except to 


I’ll tell you ... I’ll tell you the 

As Gittes: 

Confident. Focused. “At last.” 



Good. What’s her name? 

As Evelyn: 

“Her name. . . . Dear God, her name . . . ” 

. . . Katherine. 


Katherine who? 

As Evelyn: 

Bracing for the worst. “Tell it all. See if he can take it... if 
I can take it... ” 


She’s my daughter. 

Back in Gittes pov as the expectation of finally prying 
loose her confession explodes: 

“Another goddamned lie!” 

Gittes lashes out and slaps her flush across the face. 

As Evelyn: 

Searing pain. Numbness. The paralysis that comes from a 
life time of guilt. 


I said the truth. 


She stands passively, offering herself to be hit again. 


She’s my sistei^— 

As Gittes: 

slapping her again. . . 

—she’s my daughter— 

As Evelyn: 

Feeling nothing tout a letting go. 

As Gittes: 

.. . hitting her yet again, seeing her tears. .. 


—my sister— 

. . . slapping her even harder. . . 


—my daughter, my sister— 

.. . backhand, open fist, grasp her, hurl her into a sofa. 


I said I want the truth. 


As Evelyn: 

At first his assault seems miles away, hut slamming 
against the sofa jolts you back to the now, and you scream 
out words you’ve never said to anyone: 


She’s my sister and my 

As Gittes: 

A blinding gap! Dumbfounded. Fury ebbs away as the gap 
slowly closes and you absorb the terrible implications 
behind her words. 

Suddenly, Khan POUNDS down the stairs. 

As Khan: 

Ready to fight to protect her. 

As Evelyn , suddenly remembering: 

“Katherine! Sweet Jesus, did she hear me?” 


(quickly to Kahn) 

Khan, please, go back. 

For God’s sake, keep her 
upstairs. Go back. 

Khan gives Gittes a hard look, then retreats upstairs. 

As Evelyn , turning to see the frozen expression on Gittes’ 


An odd sense of pity for him. “Poor man... still doesn’t get 


. . . my father and I . . . 
understand? Or is it too tough 
for you? 

Evelyn drops her head to her knees and sobs. 

As Gittes: 

A wave of compassion. “Cross. . . that sick bastard...” 



He raped you? 

As Evelyn: 

Images of you and your father, so many years ago. 
Crushing guilt. But no more lies: 

Evelyn shakes her head “no.” 

This is the location of a critical rewrite. In the third draft 
Evelyn explains at great length that her mother died when 
she was fifteen and her father’s grief was such that he 
had a “breakdown” and became “ a httle boy,” unable to 
feed or dress h im self. This led to incest between them. 
Unable to face what he had done, her father then turned 
his back on her. This exposition not only slowed the pace 
of the scene, but more importantly, it seriously weakened 
the power of the antagonist, giving him a sympathetic vul¬ 
nerability. It was cut and replaced by Gittes’ “He raped 
you?” and Evelyn’s denial—a brilliant stroke that main- 


tains Cross's cruel core, and severely tests Gittes’ love for 

This opens at least two possible explanations for why 
Evelyn denies she was raped: Children often have a self¬ 
destructive need to protect their parents. It could well have 
been rape, but even now she cannot bring herself to accuse 
her father. Or was she complicit. Her mother was dead, 
making her the “woman of the house.” In those circum¬ 
stances, incest between father and daughter is not 
unknown. That, however, doesn’t excuse Cross. The respon¬ 
sibility is his in either case, but Evelyn has punished herself 
with guilt. Her denial forces Gittes to face character defining 
choices: whether or not to continue loving this woman, 
whether or not to turn her over to the police for murder. 
Her denial contradicts his expectation and a void opens: 

As Gittes: 

“If she wasn’t raped ... ?” Confusion. “There must be 


Then what happened? 

As Evelyn: 

Flashing memories of the shock of being pregnant, your 
father’s sneering face, fleeing to Mexico, the agony of 
giving birth, a foreign clinic, loneliness . . . 

I ran away . . . 


. . . to Mexico. 


As Evetyn: 

Remembering when Hollis found you in Mexico, proudly 
showing him Katherine, grief as your child is taken from 
you, the faces of the nuns, the sound of Katherine crying... 

(nodding “yes”) 

Hollis came and took care of 
me. I couldn’t see her ... I 
was fifteen. I wanted to but I 
couldn’t. Then . . . 

Images of your joy at getting Katherine to Los Angeles to be 
with you, of keeping her safe from your father, but then 
sudden fear: “He must never And her. He’s mad. I know 
what he wants. If he gets his hands on my child, he’s going 
to do it again.” 


(a pleading look to 

Now I want to be with her. 

I want to take care of her. 

As Gittes: 

“I’ve finally got the truth.” Feeling the gap close, and with 
it, a growing love for her. Pity for all she’s suffered, respect 
for her courage and devotion to the child. “Let her go. No, 
better yet, get her out of town yourself. She’ll never make 
it on her own. And, man, you owe it to her.” 


Where are you gonna take 
her now? 


As Evelyn: 

Rush of hope. “What does he mean? Will he help?” 

Back to Mexico. 

As Gittes: 

Wheels turning. “How to get her past Escobar?” 


Well, you can’t take the train. 
Escobar’ll be looking for you 

As Evelyn: 

Disbelief. Elation. “He is going to help me!” 


How . . . how about a plane? 


No, that’s worse. You better 
just get out of here, leave all 
this stuff here. 


Where does Kahn live? Get 
the exact address. 


All right . . . 

Light glints off the glasses on the table, catching Evelyn’s eye. 


As Evelyn: 

“Those glasses ...” An image of Hollis reading . . . without 


Those didn’t belong to Hollis. 


How do you know? 


He didn’t wear bifocals. 

She goes upstairs as Gittes stares down at the glasses. 

As Gittes: 

“If not Mulwray’s glasses ... ? A gap breaks open. One 
last piece of truth yet to find. Memory rewinds and flashes 
back to . .. lunch with Noah Cross, and him peering over 
bifocals, eyeing the head of a broiled fish. The gap snaps 
shut. “Cross killed Mulwray because his son-in-law 
wouldn’t tell him where his daughter by his daughter was 
hiding. Cross wants the kid. But he won’t get her because 
I’ve got the evidence to nail him... in my pocket.” 

Gittes carefully tucks the bifocals into his vest, then looks up to 
see Evelyn on the stairs with her arm around a shy teenager. 

“Lovely. Like her mother. A little scared. Must have heard 


Katherine, say hello to Mister 


You move into Katherine's pov: 

If I were Katherine in this moment, what would 1 feel? 

As Katherine: 

Anxious. Flustered. “Mother’s been crying. Did this man 
hurt her? She’s smiling at him. I guess it’s okay.” 





Evelyn gives her daughter a reassuring look and sends her 
back upstairs. 

(to Gittes) 

He lives at 1712 Alameda. Do 
you know where that is? 


Sure . . . 

As Gittes: 

A last gap opens, flooded with images of a woman you once 
loved and her violent death on Alameda in Chinatown. 
Feelings of dread, of life coming full circle. The gap slowly 
closes with the thought, “This time I’ll do it right.” 



In writing out what actors call “inner monologues” I’ve put this 
well-paced scene into ultra-slow motion, and given words to what 
would be flights of feeling or flashes of insight. Nonetheless, that’s 
how it is at the desk. It may take days, even weeks, to write what 
will be minutes, perhaps seconds, on screen. We put each and 
every moment under a microscope of thinking, rethinking, cre¬ 
ating, recreating as we weave through our characters’ moments, a 
maze of unspoken thoughts, images, sensations, and emotions. 

Writing from the inside out, however, does not mean that we 
imagine a scene from one end to the other locked in a single char¬ 
acter’s point of view. Rather, as in the exercise above, the writer 
shifts points of view. He settles into the conscious center of a char¬ 
acter and asks the question: “If I were this character in these cir¬ 
cumstances, what would I do?” He feels within his own emotions a 
specific human reaction and imagines the character’s next action. 

Now the writer’s problem is this: how to progress the scene? To 
build a next beat, the writer must move out of the character's sub¬ 
jective point of view and take an objective look at the action he just 
created. This action anticipates a certain reaction from the char¬ 
acter’s world. But that must not occur. Instead, the writer must pry 
open the gap. To do so, he asks the question writers have been 
asking themselves since time began: “What is the opposite of that ?” 

Writers are by instinct dialectical thinkers. As Jean Cocteau 
said, "The spirit of creation is the spirit of contradiction—the 
breakthrough of appearances toward an unknown reality.” You 
must doubt appearances and seek the opposite of the obvious. 
Don’t skim the surface, taking things at face value. Rather, peel 
back the skin of life to find the hidden, the unexpected, the seem¬ 
ingly inappropriate—in other words, the truth. And you will find 
your truth in the gap. 

Remember, you are the God of your universe. You know your 
characters, their minds, bodies, emotions, relationships, world. 
Once you've created an honest moment from one point of view, you 
move around your universe, even into the inanimate, looking for 


another point of view so you can invade that, create an unexpected 
reaction, and splinter open the cleft between expectation and result. 

Having done this, you then go back into the mind of the first 
character, and find your way to a new emotional truth by asking 
again: "If I were this character under these new circumstances, what 
would I do?” Finding your way to that reaction and action, you then 
step right out again, asking: “And what is the opposite of that?” 

Fine writing emphasizes REACTIONS. 

Many of the actions in any story are more or less expected. By 
genre convention, the lovers in a Love Story will meet, the detective 
in a Thriller will discover a crime, the protagonist’s life in an Educa¬ 
tion Plot will bottom out. These and other such commonplace 
actions are universally known and anticipated by the audience. 
Consequently, fine writing puts less stress on what happens than 
on to whom it happens and why and how it happens. Indeed, the 
richest and most satisfying pleasures of all are found in stories that 
focus on the reactions that events cause and the insight gained. 

Looking back at the CHINATOWN scene: Gittes knocks on the 
door expecting to be let in. What’s the reaction he gets? Khan blocks 
his way, expecting Gittes to wait. Gittes’s reaction? He shocks Khan 
by insulting him in Cantonese and barging in. Evelyn comes down¬ 
stairs expecting Gittes’s help. The reaction to that? Gittes calls the 
police, expecting to force her to confess the murder and tell the 
truth about the “other woman." Reaction? She reveals that the other 
woman is her daughter by incest, indicting her lunatic father for the 
murder. Beat after beat, even in the quietest, most internalized of 
scenes, a dynamic series of action/reaction/gap, renewed action/sur¬ 
prising reaction /gap builds the scene to and around its Turning 
Point as reactions amaze and fascinate. 

If you write a beat in which a character steps up to a door, 
knocks, and waits, and in reaction the door is politely opened to 
invite him in, and the director is foolish enough to shoot this, in all 
probability it will never see the light of the screen. Any editor 
worthy of the title would instantly scrap it, explaining to the 


director: “Jack, these are eight dead seconds. He knocks on the 
door and it’s actually opened for him? No, we’ll cut to the sofa. 
That’s the first real beat. Sorry you squandered fifty thousand dol¬ 
lars walking your star through a door, but it’s a pace killer and 
pointless.” A “pointless pace killer” is any scene in which reactions 
lack insight and imagination, forcing expectation to equal result. 

Once you’ve imagined the scene, beat by beat, gap by gap, you 
write. What you write is a vivid description of what happens and 
the reactions it gets, what is seen, said, and done. You write so that 
when someone else reads your pages he will, beat by beat, gap by 
gap, live through the roller coaster of life that you lived through at 
your desk. The words on the page allow the reader to plunge into 
each gap, seeing what you dreamed, feeling what you felt, learning 
what you understood until, like you, the reader’s pulse pounds, 
emotions flow, and meaning is made. 


The answers to the questions that began this chapter should now 
be clear. The stuff of a story is not its words. Your text must be 
lucid to express the desk-bound life of your imagination and feel¬ 
ings. But words are not an end, they are a means, a medium. The 
substance of story is the gap that splits open between what a 
human being expects to happen when he takes an action and what 
really does happen; the rift between expectation and result, proba¬ 
bility and necessity. To build a scene, we constantly break open 
these breaches in reality. 

As to the source of energy in story, the answer is the same: the 
gap. The audience empathizes with the character, vicariously 
seeking his desire. It more or less expects the world to react the 
way the character expects. When the gap opens up for character, it 
opens up for audience. This is the “Oh, my God!" moment, the 
“Oh, no!" or “Oh, yes!” you’ve experienced again and again in well- 
crafted stories. 

The next time you go to the movies, sit in the front row at the 
wall, so you can watch an audience watch a film. It’s very instruc- 


tive: Eyebrows fly up, mouths drop open, bodies flinch and rock, 
laughter explodes, tears run down faces. Every time the gap splits 
open for character, it opens for audience. With each turn, the char¬ 
acter must pour more energy and effort into his next action. The 
audience, in empathy with the character, feels the same surges of 
energy building beat by beat through the film. 

As a charge of electricity leaps from pole to pole in a magnet, so 
the spark of life ignites across the gap between the self and reality. 
With this flash of energy we ignite the power of story and move the 
heart of the audience. 


A story is a design in five parts: The Inciting Incident, the first 
major event of the telling, is the primary cause for all that follows, 
putting into motion the other four elements— Progressive Complica¬ 
tions, Crisis, Climax, Resolution. To understand how the Inciting 
Incident enters into and functions within the work, let’s step back 
to take a more comprehensive look at setting, the physical and social 
world in which it occurs. 


We’ve defined setting in terms of period, duration, location, and level 
of conflict. These four dimensions frame the story’s world, but to 
inspire the multitude of creative choices you need to tell an original, 
cliche-free story, and you must fill that frame with a depth and 
breadth of detail. Below is a list of general questions we ask of all 
stories. Beyond these, each work inspires a unique list of its own, 
driven by the writer’s thirst for insight. 

How do my characters make a living? We spend a third or more of 
our lives at work, yet rarely see scenes of people doing their jobs. The 
reason is simple: Most work is boring. Perhaps not to the person 
doing the work, but boring to watch. As any lawyer, cop, or doctor 
knows, the vast majority of their time is spent in routine duties, 
reports, and meetings that change little or nothing—the epitome of 
expectation meeting result. That’s why in the professional genres— 
Courtroom, Crime, Medical —we focus on only those moments when 



work causes more problems than it solves. Nonetheless, to get inside 
a character, we must question all aspects of their twenty-four-hour 
day. Not only work, but how do they play? Pray? Make love? 

What are the politics of my world ? Not necessarily politics in terms 
of right-wing/left-wing, Republican/Democrat, but in the true sense 
of the word: power. Politics is the name we give to the orchestration of 
power in any society. Whenever human beings gather to do anything, 
there's always an uneven distribution of power. In corporations, hos¬ 
pitals, religions, government agencies, and the like, someone at the 
top has great power, people at the bottom have little or none, those in 
between have some. How does a worker gain power or lose it? No 
matter how we try to level inequalities, applying egalitarian theories of 
all kinds, human societies are stubbornly and inherently pyramidal in 
their arrangement of power. In other words, politics. 

Even when writing about a household, question its politics, for 
like any other social structure, a family is political. Is it a patriarchal 
home where Dad has the clout, but when he leaves the house, it 
transfers to Mom, then when she’s out, to the oldest child? Or is it 
a matriarchal home, where Mom runs things? Or a contemporary 
family in which the kid is tyrannizing his parents? 

Love relationships are political. An old Gypsy expression goes: 
“He who confesses first loses.” The first person to say “I love you” 
has lost because the other, upon hearing it, immediately smiles a 
knowing smile, realizing that he’s the one loved, so he now con¬ 
trols the relationship. If you’re lucky, those three little words will be 
said in unison over candlelight. Or, if very, very lucky, they won’t 
need to be said . . . they’ll be done. 

What are the rituals of my world? In all corners of the world life 
is bound up in ritual. This is a ritual, is it not? I’ve written a book 
and you’re reading it. In another time and place we might sit under 
a tree or take a walk, like Socrates and his students. We create a 
ritual for every activity, not only for public ceremony but for our 
very private rites. Heaven help the person who rearranges my orga¬ 
nization of toiletries around the bathroom basin. 

How do your characters take meals? Eating is a different ritual 
everywhere in the world. Americans, for example, according to a 


recent survey, now eat 75 percent of all their meals in restaurants. 
If your characters eat at home, is it an old-fashioned family that 
dresses for dinner at a certain hour, or a contemporary one that 
feeds from an open refrigerator? 

What are the values in my world? What do my characters con¬ 
sider good? Evil? What do they see as right? Wrong? What are my 
society’s laws? Realize that good/evil, right/wrong, and legal/illegal 
don’t necessarily have anything to do with one another. What do 
my characters believe is worth living for? Foolish to pursue? What 
would they give their lives for? 

What is the genre or combination of genres? With what conven¬ 
tions? As with setting, genres surround the writer with creative 
limitations that must be kept or brilliantly altered. 

What are the biographies of my characters? From the day they 
were born to the opening scene, how has life shaped them? 

What is the Backstory? This is an oft-misunderstood term. It 
doesn’t mean life history or biography. Backstory is the set of signif¬ 
icant events that occurred in the characters’ past that the writer can 
use to build his story’s progressions. Exactly how we use Backstory 
to tell story will be discussed later, but for the moment note that we 
do not bring characters out of a void. We landscape character 
biographies, planting them with events that become a garden we’ll 
harvest again and again. 

What is my cast design? Nothing in a work of art is there by acci¬ 
dent. Ideas may come spontaneously, but we must weave them 
consciously and creatively into the whole. We cannot allow any 
character who comes to mind to stumble into the story and play a 
part. Each role must fit a purpose, and the first principle of cast 
design is polarization. Between the various roles we devise a net¬ 
work of contrasting or contradictory attitudes. 

If the ideal cast sat down for dinner and something hap¬ 
pened, whether as trivial as spilled wine or as important as a 
divorce announcement, from each and every character would 
come a separate and distinctively different reaction. No two 
would react the same because no two share the same attitude 
toward anything. Each is an individual with a character-specific 


view of life, and the disparate reaction of each contrasts with all 

If two characters in your cast share the same attitude and react 
in kind to whatever occurs, you must either collapse the two into 
one, or expel one from the story. When characters react the same, 
you minimize opportunities for conflict. Instead, the writer's 
strategy must be to maximize these opportunities. 

Imagine this cast: father, mother, daughter, and a son named 
Jeffrey. This family lives in Iowa. As they sit down for dinner, Jef¬ 
frey turns to them and says: “Mom, Dad, Sis, I've come to a big 
decision. I have an airline ticket and tomorrow I’m leaving for Hol¬ 
lywood to pursue a career as an art director in the movies.” And all 
three respond: “Oh, what a wonderful idea! Isn’t that great? Jeffs 
going off to Hollywood!” And they toast him with their glasses of 

CUT TO: Jeffs room, where they help him pack while admiring 
his pictures on the wall, reflecting nostalgically on his days in art 
school, complimenting his talent, predicting success. 

CUT TO: The airport as the family puts Jeff on the plane, tears 
in their eyes, embracing him: “Write when you get work, Jeff.” 

Suppose, instead, Jeffrey sits down for dinner, delivers his dec¬ 
laration, and suddenly Dad’s fist POUNDS the table: “What the 
hell are you talking about, Jeff? You’re not going off to Hollyweird 
to become some art director . . . whatever an art director is. No, 
you're staying right here in Davenport. Because, Jeff, as you know, 
I have never done anything for myself. Not in my entire life. It’s all 
for you, Jeff, for you! Granted, I’m the king of plumbing supplies 
in Iowa . . . but someday, son, you’ll be emperor of plumbing sup¬ 
plies all over the Midwest and I won’t hear another word of this 
nonsense. End of discussion.” 

CUT TO: Jeff sulking in his room. His mother slips in whis¬ 
pering: “Don’t you listen to him. Go off to Hollywood, become an 
art director . . . whatever that is. Do they win Oscars for that, Jeff?” 
“Yes, Mom, they do,” Jeff says. “Good! Go off to Hollywood and 
win me an Oscar and prove that bastard wrong. And you can do it, 
Jeff. Because you’ve got talent. I know you’ve got talent. You got 


that from my side of the family. I used to have talent too, but I gave 
it all up when I married your father, and I’ve regretted it ever since. 
For God’s sake, Jeff, don’t sit here in Davenport. Hell, this town 
was named after a sofa. No, go off to Hollywood and make me 

CUT TO: Jeff packing. His sister comes in, shocked, “Jeff! What 
are you doing? Packing? Leaving me alone? With those two? You 
know how they are. They’ll eat me alive. If you go off to Hollywood, 
I’ll end up in the plumbing supply business!” Pulling his stuff out 
of the suitcase: "If you wanna be an artist, you can be an artist any¬ 
where. A sunset’s a sunset. A landscape’s a landscape. What the 
hell difference does it make? And someday you’ll have success. I 
know you will. I’ve seen paintings just like yours ... in Sears. 
Don’t leave, Jeff! I’ll die!” 

Whether or not Jeff goes off to Hollywood, the polarized cast 
gives the writer something we all desperately need: scenes. 


When research of setting reaches the saturation point, something 
miraculous happens. Your story takes on a unique atmosphere, a 
personality that sets it apart from every other story ever told, no 
matter how many millions there have been through time. It’s an 
amazing phenomenon: Human beings have told one another sto¬ 
ries since they sat around the fire in caves, and every time the story¬ 
teller uses the art in its fullest, his story, like a portrait by a master 
painter, becomes one of a kind. 

Like the stories you’re striving to tell, you want to be one of a 
kind, recognized and respected as an original. In your quest, con¬ 
sider these three words: “author,” “authority," “authenticity.” 

First, “author.” “Author” is a title we easily give novelists and 
playwrights, rarely screenwriters. But in the strict sense of “origi¬ 
nator,” the screenwriter, as creator of setting, characters, and story, 
is an author . For the test of authorship is knowledge. A true author, 
no matter the medium, is an artist with godlike knowledge of his 
subject, and the proof of his authorship is that his pages smack of 


authority. What a rare pleasure it is to open a screenplay and imme¬ 
diately surrender to the work, giving over emotion and concentra¬ 
tion because there is something ineffable between and under the 
lines that says: “This writer knows. I’m in the hands of an authority.” 
And the effect of writing with authority is authenticity. 

Two principles control the emotional involvement of an audi¬ 
ence. First, empathy: identification with the protagonist that draws 
us into the story, vicariously rooting for our own desires in life. 
Second, authenticity: We must believe, or as Samuel Taylor Coleridge 
suggested, we must willingly suspend our disbelief. Once involved, 
the writer must keep us involved to FADE OUT. To do so, he must 
convince us that the world of his story is authentic. We know that 
storytelling is a ritual surrounding a metaphor for life. To enjoy this 
ceremony in the dark we react to stories as if they’re real. We sus¬ 
pend our cynicism and believe in the tale as long as we find it 
authentic. The moment it lacks credibility, empathy dissolves and 
we feel nothing. 

Authenticity, however, does not mean actuality. Giving a story a 
contemporary milieu is no guarantee of authenticity; authenticity 
means an internally consistent world, true to itself in scope, depth, 
and detail. As Aristotle tells us: “For the purposes of [story] a con¬ 
vincing impossibility is preferable to an unconvincing possibility.” 
We can all list films that had us moaning: “I don’t buy it. People 
aren't like that. Makes no sense. That’s not how things happen.” 

Authenticity has nothing to do with so-called reality. A story set 
in a world that could never exist could be absolutely authentic. Story 
arts do not distinguish between reality and the various nonrealities 
of fantasy, dream, and ideality. The creative intelligence of the writer 
merges all these into a unique yet convincing fictional reality. 

ALIEN: In the opening sequence the crew of an interstellar 
cargo ship awakes from its stasis chambers and gathers at the mess 
table. Dressed in work shirts and dungarees, they drink coffee and 
smoke cigarettes. On the table a toy bird bobs in a glass. Elsewhere, 
little collectibles of life clutter the living spaces. Plastic bugs hang 
from the ceiling, pinups and family photos are taped to the bulk¬ 
head. The crew talks—not about work or getting home—but about 


money. Is this unscheduled stop in their contract? Will the com¬ 
pany pay bonuses for this extra duty? 

Have you ever ridden in the cab of an eighteen-wheeler? How 
are they decorated? With the little collectibles of life: a plastic saint 
on the dashboard, blue ribbons won at a county fair, family photos, 
magazine clippings. Teamsters spend more time in their trucks 
than at home, so they take pieces of home on the road. And when 
they take a break, what’s the first topic of talk? Money—golden 
time, overtime, is this in our contract? Understanding this psy¬ 
chology, screenwriter Dan O’Bannon recreated it in subtle details, 
so as that the scene played, the audience surrendered, thinking: 
“Wonderful! They’re not spacemen like Buck Rogers or Flash 
Gordon. They’re truck drivers/' 

In the next sequence, as Kane (John Hurt) investigates an alien 
growth, something springs out and smashes through the helmet of 
his space suit. Like a huge crab, the creature covers Kane’s face, its 
legs locked around his head. What’s worse, it's forced a tube down 
his throat and into his belly, putting him in a coma. Science Officer 
Ash (Ian Holm) realizes he can't pry the creature loose without rip¬ 
ping Kane’s face apart, so he decides to release the creature’s grip 
by severing its legs one at a time. 

But as Ash applies a laser saw to the first leg, the flesh splits 
and out spits a viscous substance; a blistering “acid blood” that dis¬ 
solves steel like sugar and eats a hole through the floor as big as a 
watermelon. The crew rushes to the deck below and looks up to see 
the acid eating through the ceiling, then burning a hole just as big 
through that floor. They rush down another deck and it’s eating 
through that ceiling and floor until three decks down the acid 
finally peters out. At this point, one thought passed through the 
audience: “These people are in deep shit.” 

In other words, O’Bannon researched his alien. He asked him¬ 
self, “What is the biology of my beast? How does it evolve? Feed? 
Grow? Reproduce? Does it have any weaknesses? What are its 
strengths?” Imagine the list of attributes O'Bannon must have con¬ 
cocted before seizing on “acid blood.” Imagine the many sources 
he may have explored. Perhaps he did an intense study of earth- 


bound parasitical insects, or remembered the eighth-century 
Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf in which the blood of Grendel the water 
monster burns through the hero’s shield, or it came to him in a 
nightmare. Whether through investigation, imagination, or 
memory, O’Bannon’s alien is a stunning creation. 

All the artists making ALIEN—writer, director, designers, 
actors—worked to the limit of their talents to create an authentic 
world. They knew that believability is the key to terror. Indeed, if the 
audience is to feel any emotion, it must believe. For when a film’s 
emotional load becomes too sad, too horrifying, even too funny, how 
do we try to escape? We say to ourselves: “It’s only a movie.” We 
deny its authenticity. But if the film’s of quality, the second we 
glance back at the screen, we’re grabbed by the throat and pulled 
right back into those emotions. We won’t escape until the film lets 
us out, which is what we paid our money for in the first place. 

Authenticity depends on the “telling detail.” When we use a few 
selected details, the audience’s imagination supplies the rest, com¬ 
pleting a credible whole. On the other hand, if the writer and 
director try too hard to be “real”—especially with sex and violence— 
the audience reaction is: “That’s not really real,” or “My God, that’s 
so real,” or “They’re not really fucking,” or “My God, they’re really 
fucking.” In either case, credibility shatters as the audience is 
yanked out of the story to notice the filmmaker’s technique. An 
audience believes as long as we don’t give them reason to doubt. 

Beyond physical and social detail, we must also create emo¬ 
tional authenticity. Authorial research must pay off in believable 
character behavior. Beyond behavioral credibility, the story itself 
must persuade. From event to event, cause and effect must be con¬ 
vincing, logical. The art of story design lies in the fine adjustment 
of things both usual and unusual to things universal and arche¬ 
typal. The writer whose knowledge of subject has taught him 
exactly what to stress and expand versus what to lay down quietly 
and subtly will stand out from the thousands of others who always 
hit the same note. 

Originality lies in the struggle for authenticity, not eccentricity. 
A personal style, in other words, cannot be achieved self-consciously. 


Rather, when your authorial knowledge of setting and character 
meets your personality, the choices you make and the arrange¬ 
ments you create out of this mass of material are unique to you. 
Your work becomes what you are, an original. 

Compare a Waldo Salt story (MIDNIGHT COWBOY, SERPICO) 
with an Alvin Sargent story (DOMINICK AND EUGENE, ORDI¬ 
NARY PEOPLE): one hard-edged, the other tender, one elliptical, the 
other linear, one ironic, the other compassionate. The unique story 
styles of each is the natural and spontaneous effect of an author mas¬ 
tering his subject in the never-ending battle against cliches. 


Starting from any Premise at any point in the story’s chronology, 
our research feeds the invention of events, the events redirect 
research. We do not, in other words, necessarily design a story by 
beginning with its first major event. But at some point as you 
create your universe, you’ll face these questions: How do I set my 
story into action? Where do I place this crucial event? 

When an Inciting Incident occurs it must be a dynamic, fully 
developed event, not something static or vague. This, for example, 
is not an Inciting Incident: A college dropout lives off-campus near 
New York University. She wakes one morning and says: “I’m bored 
with my life. I think I’ll move to Los Angeles.” She packs her VW 
and motors west, but her change of address changes nothing of 
value in her life. She's merely exporting her apathy from New York 
to California. 

If, on the other hand, we notice that she’s created an ingenious 
kitchen wallpaper from hundreds of parking tickets, then a sudden 
POUNDING on the door brings the police, brandishing a felony 
warrant for ten thousand dollars in unpaid citations, and she flees 
down the fire escape, heading West—this could be an Inciting 
Incident. It has done what an Inciting Incident must do. 

The INCITING INCIDENT radically upsets the balance of 

forces in the protagonist's life. 


As a story begins, the protagonist is living a life that’s more or 
less in balance. He has successes and failures, ups and downs. 
Who doesn’t? But life is in relative control. Then, perhaps suddenly 
but in any case decisively, an event occurs that radically upsets its 
balance, swinging the value-charge of the protagonist’s reality 
either to the negative or to the positive. 

Negative: Our dropout reaches L.A., but she balks at taking a 
normal job when she’s asked for her social security number. 
Fearful that in a computerized world the Manhattan police will 
track her down through the Internal Revenue Service, what does 
she do? Go underground? Sell drugs? Turn to prostitution? 

Positive: Perhaps the knock at the door is an heir hunter with 
news of a million-dollar fortune left by an anonymous relative. Sud¬ 
denly rich, she’s under terrible pressure. With no more excuses for 
failure, she has a heart-thumping fear of screwing up this dream 
come true. 

In most cases, the Inciting Incident is a single event that either 
happens directly to the protagonist or is caused by the protagonist. 
Consequently, he’s immediately aware that life is out of balance for 
better or worse. When lovers first meet, this face-to-face event 
turns life, for the moment, to the positive. When Jeffrey abandons 
the security of his Davenport family for Hollywood, he knowingly 
puts himself at risk. 

Occasionally, an Inciting Incident needs two events: a setup 
and a payoff. JAWS: Setup, a shark eats a swimmer and her body 


washes onto the beach. Payoff, the sheriff (Roy Scheider) dis¬ 
covers the corpse. If the logic of an Inciting Incident requires a 
setup, the writer cannot delay the payoff—at least not for very 
long—and keep the protagonist ignorant of the fact that his life 
is out of balance. Imagine JAWS with this design: Shark eats 
girl, followed by sheriff goes bowling, gives out parking tickets, 
makes love to his wife, goes to PTA meeting, visits his sick 
mother . . . while the corpse rots on the beach. A story is not a 
sandwich of episodic slices of life between two halves of an 
Inciting Incident. 

Consider the unfortunate design of THE RIVER: The film 
opens with the first half of an Inciting Incident: a businessman, 
Joe Wade (Scott Glenn) decides to build a dam across a river, 
knowing hell flood five farms in the process. One of these belongs 
to Tom and Mae Garvey (Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek). No one, 
however, tells Tom or Mae. So for the next hundred minutes we 
watch: Tom plays baseball, Tom and Mae struggle to make the 
farm turn a profit, Tom goes to work in a factory caught up in a 
labor dispute, Mae breaks her arm in a tractor accident, Joe makes 
romantic passes at Mae, Mae goes to the factory to visit her hus¬ 
band who’s now a scab locked in the factory, a stressed-out Tom 
fails to get it up, Mae whispers a gentle word, Tom gets it up, and 
so on. 

Ten minutes from its end, the film delivers the second half 
of the Inciting Incident: Tom stumbles into Joe's office, sees a 
model of the dam, and says, in effect: “If you build that dam, Joe, 
you'll flood my farm.” Joe shrugs. Then, aeus ex machina, it 
starts to rain and the river rises. Tom and his buddies get their 
bulldozers to shore up the levee; Joe gets his bulldozer and 
goons to tear down the levee. Tom and Joe have a bulldozer-to- 
r bulldozer Mexican standoff. At this point, Joe steps back and 
declares that he didn’t want to build the dam in the first place. 

The protagonist must react to the Inciting Incident. 


Given the infinitely variable nature of protagonists, however, 
any reaction is possible. For example, how many Westerns began 
like this? Bad guys shoot up the town and kill the old marshal. 
Townspeople gather and go down to the livery stable, run by Matt, 
a retired gunslinger who's sworn a sacred oath never to kill again. 
The mayor pleads: “Matt, you've got to pin on the badge and come 
to our aid. You’re the only one that can do it.” Matt replies: “No, no, 

I hung up my guns long ago.” “But, Matt,” begs the schoolmarm, 
“they killed your mother.” Matt toes the dirt and says: “Well. . . she 
was old and I guess her time had come.” He refuses to act, but that 
is a reaction. 

The protagonist responds to the sudden negative or positive 
change in the balance of life in whatever way is appropriate to char¬ 
acter and world. A refusal to act, however, cannot last for very long, 
even in the most passive protagonists of minimalist Nonplots. For 
we all wish some reasonable sovereignty over our existence, and if 
an event radically upsets our sense of equilibrium and control, 
what would we want? What does anyone, including our protago¬ 
nist, want? To restore balance. 

Therefore, the Inciting Incident first throws the protagonist’s life 
out of balance, then arouses in him the desire to restore that balance. 
Out of this need—often quickly, occasionally with deliberation—the 
protagonist next conceives of an Object of Desire: something physical 
or situational or attitudinal that he feels he lacks or needs to put the 
ship of life on an even keel. Lastly, the Inciting Incident propels the 
protagonist into an active pursuit of this object or goal. And for many 
stories or genres this is sufficient: An event pitches the protagonist’s 
life out of kilter, arousing a conscious desire for something he feels 
will set things right, and he goes after it. 

But for those protagonists we tend to admire the most, the 
Inciting Incident arouses not only a conscious desire, but an 
unconscious one as well. These complex characters suffer intense 
inner battles because these two desires are in direct conflict with 
each other. No matter what the character consciously thinks he 
wants, the audience senses or realizes that deep inside he uncon¬ 
sciously wants the very opposite. 


unconscious desire 

CARNAL KNOWLEDGE: If we were to pull the protagonist Jona¬ 
than (Jack Nicholson) aside and ask him “What do you want?” his 
conscious answer would be: “I’m a good-looking guy, lot of fun to be 
with, make a terrific living as a CPA. My life would be paradise if I 
could find the perfect woman to share it.” The film takes Jonathan 
from his college years to middle age, a thirty-year search for his 
dream woman. Again and again he meets a beautiful, intelligent 
woman, but soon their candlelit romance turns to dark emotions, acts 
of physical violence, then breakup. Over and over he plays the great 
romantic until he has a woman head over heels in love with him, 
then he turns on her, humiliates her, and hurls her out of his life. 

At Climax, he invites Sandy (Art Garfunkel), an old college 
buddy, for dinner. For amusement he screens 35mm slides of all 
the women from his life; a show he entitles “Ballbusters on 
Parade.” As each woman appears, he trashes her to Sandy for “what 
was wrong with her.” In the Resolution scene, he’s with a prostitute 
(Rita Moreno) who has to read him an ode he’s written in praise of 
his penis so he can get it up. He thinks he’s hunting for the perfect 
woman, but we know that unconsciously he wants to degrade and 
destroy women and has done that throughout his life. Jules 
Feiffer’s screenplay is a chilling delineation of a man that too many 
women know only too well. 

MRS. SOFFEL: In 1901 a thief (Mel Gibson) who’s committed 
murder awaits execution. The wife of the prison warden (Diane 
Keaton) decides to save his soul for God. She reads Bible quotations to 
him, hoping that when he’s hanged he’ll go to heaven and not hell. 


They are attracted. She engineers his jailbreak, then joins him. On the 
run they make love, but only once. As the authorities close in, she real¬ 
izes he’s about to die and decides to die with him: “Shoot me," she 
begs him, “I don’t want to live a day beyond you." He pulls the trigger 
but only wounds her. In the Resolution, she’s imprisoned for life, but 
goes into her cell proudly, virtually spitting in the eye of her jailer. 

Mrs. Soffel seems to flit from choice to choice, but we sense 
that underneath her changes of mind is the powerful unconscious 
desire for a transcendent, absolute, romantic experience of such 
intensity that if nothing ever happened to her again it wouldn’t 
matter . . . because for one sublime moment she will have lived. 
Mrs. Soffel is the ultimate romantic. 

THE CRYING GAME: Fergus (Stephen Rea), a member of the 
Irish Republican Army, is put in charge of a British corporal (Forest 
Whitaker) held prisoner by his IRA unit. He finds himself in sym¬ 
pathy with the man’s plight. When the corporal is killed, Fergus goes 
AWOL to England, hiding out from both the British and the IRA. He 
looks up the corporal’s lover, Dil (Jaye Davidson). He falls in love, only 
to discover that Dil’s a transvestite. The IRA then tracks him down. 
Fergus volunteered for the IRA knowing it isn’t a college fraternity, so 
when they order him to assassinate an English judge, he must finally 
come to terms with his politics. Is he or is he not an Irish patriot? 

Beneath Fergus’s conscious political struggle, the audience 
senses from his first moments with the prisoner to his last tender 
scenes with Dil that this film isn’t about his commitment to the 
cause. Hidden behind his zigzag politics Fergus harbors the most 
human of needs: to love and be loved. 


The energy of a protagonist’s desire forms the critical element of 
design known as the Spine of the story (AKA Through-line or Super- 
objective). The Spine is the deep desire in and effort by the protago¬ 
nist to restore the balance of life. It's the primary unifying force 
that holds all other story elements together. For no matter what 
happens on the surface of the story, each scene, image, and word is 




ultimately an aspect of the Spine, relating, causally or thematically, 
to this core of desire and action. 

If the protagonist has no unconscious desire, then his con¬ 
scious objective becomes the Spine. The Spine of any Bond film, 
for example, can be phrased as: To defeat the arch-villain. James has 
no unconscious desires; he wants and only wants to save the world. 
As the story’s unifying force, Bond’s pursuit of his conscious goal 
cannot change. If he were to declare, “To hell with Dr. No. I'm 
bored with the spy business. I’m going south to work on my back- 
swing and lower my handicap,” the film falls apart. 

If, on the other hand, the protagonist has an unconscious 
desire, this becomes the Spine of the story. An unconscious desire 
is always more powerful and durable, with roots reaching to the 
protagonist’s innermost self. When an unconscious desire drives 
the story, it allows the writer to create a far more complex character 
who may repeatedly change his conscious desire. 

MOBY DICK: If Melville had made Ahab sole protagonist, his 
novel would be a simple but exciting work of High Adventure, 
driven by the captain’s monomania to destroy the white whale. But 
by adding Ishmael as dual protagonist, Melville enriched his story 
into a complex classic of the Education Plot. For the telling is in fact 
driven by Ishmael’s unconscious desire to battle inner demons, 
seeking in himself the destructive obsessions he sees in Ahab—a 
desire that not only contradicts his conscious hope to survive 
Ahab’s mad voyage, but may destroy him as it does Ahab. 



changes of 
conscious desire 

c d 








unconscious desire 


In THE CRYING GAME Fergus agonizes over politics while 
his unconscious need to love and be loved drives the telling. Jona¬ 
than searches for the “perfect woman” in CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, 
flitting from relationship to relationship, while his unconscious 
desire to humiliate and destroy women never varies. The leaps of 
desire in Mrs. Soffel's mind are enormous—from salvation to 
damnation—while unconsciously she seeks to experience the tran¬ 
scendent romance. The audience senses that the shifting urges of the 
complex protagonist are merely reflections of the one thing that 
never changes: the unconscious desire. 


From the point of view of the writer looking from the Inciting Inci¬ 
dent “down the Spine” to the last act's Climax, in spite of all we’ve 
said about genres and the various shapes from Archplot to Antiplot, 
in truth there’s only one story. In essence we have told one another 
the same tale, one way or another, since the dawn of humanity, and 
that story could be usefully called the Quest. All stories take the form 
of a Quest. 

For better or worse, an event throws a character's life 
out of balance, arousing in him the conscious and/or 
unconscious desire for that which he feels will restore 








balance, launching him on a Quest for his Object of 
Desire against forces of antagonism (inner, personal, 
extra-personal). He may or may not achieve it. This is 
story in a nutshell. 

The essential form of story is simple. But that’s like saying that 
the essential form of music is simple. It is. It's twelve notes. But 
these twelve notes conspire into everything and anything we have 
ever called music. The essential elements of the Quest are the 
twelve notes of our music, the melody we’ve listened to all our lives. 
However, like the composer sitting down at the piano, when a writer 
takes up this seemingly simple form, he discovers how incredibly 
complex it is, how inordinately difficult to do. 

To understand the Quest form of your story you need only 
identify your protagonist’s Object of Desire. Penetrate his psy¬ 
chology and find an honest answer to the question: “What does he 
want?” It may be the desire for something he can take into his 
arms: someone to love in MOONSTRUCK. It may be the need for 
inner growth: maturity in BIG. But whether a profound change in 
the real world —security from a marauding shark in JAWS—or a 
profound change in the spiritual realm —a meaningful life in 
TENDER MERCIES—by looking into the heart of the protagonist 
and discovering his desire, you begin to see the arc of your story, 
the Quest on which the Inciting Incident sends him. 



An Inciting Incident happens in only one of two ways: randomly or 
causally, either by coincidence or by decision. If by decision, it can 
be made by the protagonist—Ben’s decision to drink himself to 
death in LEAVING LAS VEGAS, or, as in KRAMER vs. KRAMER, 
by someone with the power to upset the protagonist’s life—Mrs. 
Kramer's decision to leave Mr. Kramer and their child. If by coinci¬ 
dence, it may be tragic—the accident that kills Alice’s husband in 
ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, or serendipitous—a 
sports promoter meets beautiful and gifted athlete in PAT AND 
MIKE. By choice or accident; there are no other means. 

The Inciting Incident of the Central Plot must happen 
onscreen—not in the Backstory, not between scenes offscreen. 
Each subplot has its own Inciting Incident, which may or may not 
be onscreen, but the presence of the audience at the Central Plot’s 
Inciting Incident is crucial to story design for two reasons. 

First, when the audience experiences an Inciting Incident, the 
film’s Major Dramatic Question, a variation on “How will this turn 
out?” is provoked to mind. JAWS: Will the sherifFkill the shark, or the 
shark the sheriff? LA NOTTE: After Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) tells her 
husband (Marcello Mastroianni) that he disgusts her and she's leaving, 
will she go or stay? JALSAGHER (THE MUSIC ROOM): Biswas 
(Huzur Roy), an aristocrat with a life-consuming love of music, 
decides to sell his wife’s jewels, then his palace to finance his passion 
for beauty. Will extravagance destroy or redeem this connoisseur? 

In Hollywood jargon, the Central Plot's Inciting Incident is the 
“big hook.” It must occur onscreen because this is the event that 
incites and captures the audience’s curiosity. Hunger for the 
answer to the Major Dramatic Question grips the audience’s 
interest, holding it to the last act’s climax. 

Second, witnessing the Inciting Incident projects an image of 
the Obligatory Scene into the audience’s imagination. The Obliga¬ 
tory Scene (AKA Crisis) is an event the audience knows it must see 
before the story can end. This scene will bring the protagonist into 
a confrontation with the most powerful forces of antagonism in his 


quest, forces stirred to life by the Inciting Incident that will gather 
focus and strength through the course of the story. The scene is 
called “obligatory” because having teased the audience into antici¬ 
pating this moment, the writer is obligated to keep his promise and 
show it to them. 

JAWS: When the shark attacks a vacationer and the sheriff dis¬ 
covers her remains, an vivid image comes to mind: The shark and the 
sheriff do battle face-to-face. We don’t know how we’ll get there, or 
how it’ll turn out. But we do know the film can’t be over until the 
shark has the sheriff virtually in its jaws. Screenwriter Peter Benchley 
could not have played this critical event from the point of view of 
townspeople peering out to sea with binoculars, wondering: “Is that 
the sheriff? Is that the shark?” BOOM! Then have sheriff and marine 
biologist (Richard Dreyfuss) swim ashore, shouting, “Oh, what a fight. 
Let us tell you about it.” Having projected the image in our mind, 
Benchley was obligated to put us with the sheriff when it happens. 

Unlike action genres that bring the Obligatory Scene immedi¬ 
ately and vividly to mind, other more interior genres hint at this 
scene in the Inciting Incident, then like a photo negative in acid 
solution, slowly bring it into focus. In TENDER MERCIES Mac 
Sledge is drowning in booze and an utterly meaningless life. His 
ascent from rock bottom begins when he meets a lonely woman 
with a son who needs a father. He’s inspired to write some new 
songs, then accepts baptism and tries to make peace with his 
estranged daughter. Gradually he pieces together a meaningful life. 

The audience, however, senses that because the dragon of 
meaninglessness drove Sledge to rock bottom, it must once again 
rear its gruesome head, that the story can’t end until he is slapped 
in the face with the cruel absurdity of life—this time in all its soul- 
destroying force. The Obligatory Scene comes in the form of a 
hideous accident that kills his only child. If a drunk needed an 
excuse to pick up a bottle again, this would do. Indeed, his 
daughter’s death plunges his ex-wife into a drugged stupor, but 
Sledge finds strength to go on. 

The death of Sledge's daughter was “obligatory” in this sense: 
Suppose Horton Foote had written this scenario: The friendless 


alcoholic Sledge wakes up one morning with nothing to live for. He 
meets a woman, falls in love, likes her kid and wants to raise him, 
finds religion, and writes a new tune. FADE OUT. This isn't story; 
it’s daydream. If the quest for meaning has brought about a pro¬ 
found inner change in Sledge, how is Foote to express this? Not 
through declarations of a change of heart. Self-explanatory dialogue 
convinces no one. It must be tested by an ultimate event, by pres¬ 
sure-filled character choice and action—the Obligatory (Crisis) 
Scene and Climax of the last act. 

When I say that the audience “knows” an Obligatory Scene 
awaits, it doesn’t know in an objective, checklist sense. If this event is 
mishandled, the audience won’t exit thinking, “Lousy flick. No Oblig¬ 
atory Scene.” Rather, the audience knows intuitively when something 
is missing. A lifetime of story ritual has taught the audience to antici¬ 
pate that the forces of antagonism provoked at the Inciting Incident 
will build to the limit of human experience, and that the telling 
cannot end until the protagonist is in some sense face to face with 
these forces at their most powerful. Linking a story’s Inciting Inci¬ 
dent to its Crisis is an aspect of Foreshadowing, the arrangement of 
early events to prepare for later events. In fact, every choice you 
make—genre, setting, character, mood—foreshadows. With each 
line of dialogue or image of action you guide the audience to antici¬ 
pate certain possibilities, so that when events arrive, they somehow 
satisfy the expectations you’ve created. The primary component of 
foreshadowing, however, is the projection of the Obligatory Scene 
(Crisis) into the audience’s imaginaton by the Inciting Incident. 


Where to place the Inciting Incident in the overall story design? As 
a rule of thumb, the first major event of the Central Plot occurs 
within the first 25 percent of the telling. This is a useful guide, no 
matter what the medium. How long would you make a theatre 
audience sit in the dark before engaging the story in a play? Would 
you make a reader plow through the first hundred pages of a four- 
hundred-page novel before finding the Central Plot? How long 


before irredeemable boredom sets in? The standard for a two-hour 
feature film is to locate the Central Plot’s Inciting Incident some¬ 
where within the first half-hour. 

It could be the very first thing that happens. In the first thirty 
seconds of SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS Sullivan (Joel McCrea), a 
director of vapid but profitable films, defies studio bosses and sets 
out to make a film with social significance. Within the first two 
minutes of ON THE WATERFRONT Terry (Marlon Brando) unwit¬ 
tingly helps gangsters murder a friend. 

Or much later. Twenty-seven minutes into TAXI DRIVER a 
teenage prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster), jumps into Travis Bickle’s 
(Robert De Niro) taxi. Her abusive pimp, Matthew (Harvey Keitel) 
yanks her back to the street, igniting Travis’s desire to rescue her. A 
half-hour into ROCKY an obscure club fighter, Rocky Balboa (Syl¬ 
vester Stallone), agrees to fight Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) for the 
heavyweight championship of the world. When Sam plays “As Time 
Goes By” thirty-two minutes into CASABLANCA, lisa suddenly reap¬ 
pears in Rick’s life, launching one of the screen’s great love stories. 

Or anywhere in between. However, if the Central Plot’s Inciting 
Incident arrives much later than fifteen minutes into the film, 
boredom becomes a risk. Therefore, while the audience waits for the 
main plot, a subplot may be needed to engage their interest. 

In TAXI DRIVER, the subplot of Travis’s lunatic attempt at polit¬ 
ical assassination grips us. In ROCKY we’re held by the ghetto love 
story of the painfully shy Adrian (Talia Shire) and the equally trou¬ 
bled Rocky. In CHINATOWN Gittes is duped into investigating 
Hollis Mulwray for adultery, and this subplot fascinates us as he 
struggles to untangle himself from the ruse. CASABLANCA’s Act 
One hooks us with the Inciting Incidents of no fewer than five well¬ 
paced subplots. 

But why make an audience sit through a subplot, waiting half 
an hour for the main plot to begin? ROCKY, for example, is in the 
Sports Genre. Why not start with two quick scenes: The heavyweight 
champion gives an obscure club fighter a shot at the title (setup), 
followed by Rocky choosing to take the fight (payoff). Why not open 
the film with its Central Plot? 


Because if ROCKY’s Inciting Incident were the first event we 
saw, our reaction would have been a shrug and “So what?” There¬ 
fore, Stallone uses the first half-hour to delineate Rocky’s world 
and character with craft and economy, so that when Rocky agrees 
to the fight, the audience’s reaction is strong and complete: “Him? 
That loser?!” They sit in shock, dreading the blood-soaked, bone¬ 
crushing defeat that lies ahead. 

Bring in the Central Plot's Inciting Incident as soon as 

possible . . . but not until the moment is ripe. 

An Inciting Incident must “hook” the audience, a deep and 
complete response. Their response must not only be emotional, 
but rational. This event must not only pull at audience’s feelings, 
but cause them to ask the Major Dramatic Question and imagine 
the Obligatory Scene. Therefore, the location of the Central Plot’s 
Inciting Incident is found in the answer to this question: How 
much does the audience need to know about the protagonist and 
his world to have a full response? 

In some stories, nothing. If an Inciting Incident is archetypal 
in nature, it requires no setup and must occur immediately. The 
first sentence of Kafka’s Metamorphosis reads: “One day Gregor 
Samsa awoke to discover he had been changed into a large cock¬ 
roach.” KRAMER VS. KRAMER: A wife walks out on her husband 
and leaves her child with him in the film’s first two minutes. It 
needs no preparation, for we immediately understand the terrible 
impact that would have on anybody’s life. JAWS: Shark eats 
swimmer, sheriff discovers body. These two scenes strike within 
the first seconds as we instantly grasp the horror. 

Suppose Peter Benchley had opened JAWS with scenes of the 
sheriff quitting his job with the New York City police and moving 
out to Amity Island, looking forward to a peaceful life as a law 
officer in this resort town. We meet his family. We meet the town 
council and mayor. Early summer brings the tourists. Happy 
times. Then a shark eats somebody. And suppose Spielberg had 
been foolish enough to shoot all of this exposition, would we have 


seen it? No. Editor Verna Fields would have dumped it on the cut¬ 
ting room floor, explaining that all the audience needs to know 
about the sheriff, his family, the mayor, city council, and tourists 
will be nicely dramatized in the town’s reaction to the attack . . . but 
JAWS starts with the shark. 

As soon as possible, but not until the moment is ripe . . . Every 
story world and cast are different, therefore, every Inciting Incident 
is a different event located at a different point. If it arrives too soon, 
the audience may be confused. If it arrives too late, the audience 
may be bored. The instant the audience has a sufficient under¬ 
standing of character and world to react fully, execute your Inciting 
Incident. Not a scene earlier, or a scene later. The exact moment is 
found as much by feeling as by analysis. 

If we writers have a common fault in design and placement of 
the Inciting Incident, it’s that we habitually delay the Central Plot 
while we pack our opening sequences with exposition. We consis¬ 
tently underestimate knowledge and life experience of the audi¬ 
ence, laying out our characters and world with tedious details the 
filmgoer has already filled in with common sense. 

Ingmar Bergman is one of the cinema’s best directors because he 
is, in my opinion, the cinema’s finest screenwriter. And the one 
quality that stands above all the others in Bergman’s writing is his 
extreme economy—how little he tells us about anything. In his 
THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY, for example, all we ever learn about 
his four characters is that the father is a widowed, best-selling novelist, 
his son-in-law a doctor, his son a student, and his daughter a schizo¬ 
phrenic, suffering from the same illness that killed her mother. She's 
been released from a mental hospital to join her family for a few days 
by the sea, and that act alone upsets the balance of forces in all their 
lives, propelling a powerful drama from the first moments. 

No book-signing scenes to help us understand that the father is 
a commercial but not critical success. No scenes in an operating 
room to demonstrate the doctor’s profession. No boarding school 
scenes to explain how much the son needs his father. No electric 
shock treatment sessions to explain the daughter’s anguish. 
Bergman knows that his urbane audience quickly grasps the impli- 


cations behind best-seller, doctor, boarding school, and mental hos¬ 
pital . . . and that less is always more. 


A favorite joke among film distributors goes like this: A typical Euro¬ 
pean film opens with golden, sunlit clouds. Cut to even more splendid, 
bouffant clouds. Cut again to yet more magnificent, rubescent clouds. 
A Hollywood film opens with golden, billowing clouds. In the second 
shot a 747 jumbo jet comes out of the clouds. In the third, it explodes. 

What quality of event need an Inciting Incident be? 

ORDINARY PEOPLE carries a Central Plot and subplot that are 
often mistaken for each other because of their unconventional 
design. Conrad (Timothy Hutton) is the protagonist of the film's 
subplot with an Inciting Incident that takes the life of his older 
brother during a storm at sea. Conrad survives but is guilt-ridden 
and suicidal. The brother’s death is in the Backstory and is drama¬ 
tized in flashback at the Crisis/Climax of the subplot when Conrad 
relives the boating accident and chooses to live. 

The Central Plot is driven by Conrad’s father, Calvin (Donald 
Sutherland). Although seemingly passive, he is by definition the 
protagonist: the empathetic character with the will and capacity to 
pursue desire to the end of the line. Throughout the film, Calvin is 
on a quest for the cruel secret that haunts his family and makes 
reconciliation between his son and wife impossible. After a painful 
struggle, he finds it: His wife hates Conrad, not since the death of 
her older son, but since Conrad’s birth. 

At the Crisis Calvin confronts his wife, Beth (Mary Tyler 
Moore) with the truth: She’s an obsessively orderly woman who 
wanted only one child. When her second son came along, she 
resented his craving for love when she could love only her first¬ 
born. She’s always hated Conrad, and he’s always felt it. This is 
why he’s been suicidal over his brother’s death. Calvin then forces 
the Climax: She must learn to love Conrad or leave. Beth goes to a 
closet, packs a suitcase, and heads out the door. She cannot face 
her inability to love her son. 


This Climax answers the Major Dramatic Question: Will the 
family solve its problems within itself or be torn apart? Working 
backward from it, we seek the Inciting Incident, the event that has 
upset the balance of Calvin’s life and sent him on his quest. 

The film opens with Conrad coming home from a psychiatric 
hospital, presumably cured of his suicidal neurosis. Calvin feels 
that the family has survived its loss and balance has been restored. 
The next morning Conrad, in a grim mood, sits opposite his father 
at the breakfast table. Beth puts a plate of French toast under her 
son’s face. He refuses to eat. She snatches the plate away, marches 
to the sink, and scrapes his breakfast down a garbage disposal, 
muttering: “You can’t keep French toast.” 

Director Robert Redford’s camera cuts to the father as the 
man’s life crashes. Calvin instantly senses that the hatred is back 
with a vengeance. Behind it hides something fearful. This chilling 
event grips the audience with dread as it reacts, thinking: “Look 
what she did to her child! He’s just home from the hospital and 
she's doing this number on him.” 

Novelist Judith Guest and screenwriter Alvin Sargent gave 
Calvin a quiet characterization, a man who won’t leap up from the 
table and try to bully wife and son into reconciliation. His first 
thought is to give them time and loving encouragements, such as 
the family photo scene. When he learns of Conrad's troubles at 
school, he hires a psychiatrist for him. He talks gently with his 
wife, hoping to understand. 

Because Calvin is a hesitant, compassionate man, Sargent 
had to build the dynamic of the film's progressions around the 
subplot. Conrad’s struggle with suicide is far more active than 
Calvin’s subtle quest. So Sargent foregrounded the boy’s subplot, 
giving it inordinate emphasis and screentime, while carefully 
increasing the momentum of the Central Plot in the background. 
By the time the subplot ends in the psychiatrist’s office, Calvin is 
ready to bring the Central Plot to its devastating end. The point, 
however, is that the Inciting Incident of ORDINARY PEOPLE is 
triggered by a woman scraping French toast down a garbage 


Henry James wrote brilliantly about story art in the prefaces to 
his novels, and once asked: “What, after all, is an event?” An event, 
he said, could be as little as a woman putting her hand on the table 
and looking at you “that certain way.” In the right context, just a 
gesture and a look could mean, “I'll never see you again,” or “I'll 
love you forever"—a life broken or made. 

The quality of the Inciting Incident (for that matter, any event) 
must be germane to the world, characters, and genre surrounding it. 
Once it is conceived, the writer must concentrate on its function. 
Does the Inciting Incident radically upset the balance of forces in the 
protagonist's life? Does it arouse in the protagonist the desire to 
restore balance? Does it inspire in him the conscious desire for that 
object, material or immaterial, he feels would restore the balance? In 
a complex protagonist, does it also bring to life an unconscious desire 
that contradicts his conscious need? Does it launch the protagonist 
on a quest for his desire? Does it raise the Major Dramatic Question 
in the mind of the audience? Does it project an image of the Obliga¬ 
tory Scene? If it does all this, then it can be as little as a woman 
putting her hand on the table, looking at you “that certain way.” 


The Climax of the last act is far and away the most difficult scene to 
create: It’s the soul of the telling. If it doesn’t work, the story doesn’t 
work. But the second most difficult scene to write is the Central 
Plot’s Inciting Incident. We rewrite this scene more than any other. 
So here are some questions to ask that should help bring it to mind. 

What is the worst possible thing that could happen to my pro¬ 
tagonist? How could that turn out to be the best possible thing that 
could happen to him? 

KRAMER VS. KRAMER. The worst: Disaster strikes the worka¬ 
holic Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) when his wife walks out on him 
and her child. The best: This turns out to be the shock he needed to 
fulfill his unconscious desire to be a loving human being. 

AN UNMARRIED WOMAN. The worst: When her husband 
says he’s leaving her for another woman, Erica (Jill Clayburgh) 


retches. The best: His exit turns out to be the freeing experience 
that allows this male-dependent woman to fulfill her unconscious 
desire for independence and self-possession. 

Or: What's the best possible thing that could happen to my pro¬ 
tagonist? How could it become the worst possible thing? 

DEATH IN VENICE. Von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) has lost 
his wife and children to a plague. Since then he’s buried himself in 
his work to the point of physical and mental collapse. His doctor 
sends him to the Venice spa to recuperate. The best: There he falls 
madly, helplessly in love . . . but with a boy. His passion for the 
impossibly beautiful youth, and the impossibility of it, leads to 
despair. The worst: When a new plague invades Venice and the 
child’s mother hurries her son away, Von Aschenbach lingers to 
wait for death and escape from his misery. 

THE GODFATHER, PART II. The best: After Michael (Al 
Pacino) is made Don of the Corleone crime family, he decides to 
take his family into the legitimate world. The worst: His ruthless 
enforcement of the mafia code of loyalty ends in the assassination 
of his closest associates, estrangement from his wife and children, 
and the murder of his brother, leaving him a hollowed-out, desolate 

A story may turn more than one cycle of this pattern. What is 
the best? How could that become the worst? How could that 
reverse yet again into the protagonist’s salvation? Or: What is the 
worst? How could that become the best? How could that lead the 
protagonist to damnation? We stretch toward the “bests” and 
“worsts” because story—when it is art—is not about the middle 
ground of human experience. 

The impact of the Inciting Incident creates our opportunity to 
reach the limits of life. It’s a kind of explosion. In Action genres it 
may be in fact an explosion; in other films, as muted as a smile. No 
matter how subtle or direct, it must upset the status quo of the pro¬ 
tagonist and jolt his life from its existing pattern, so that chaos 
invades the character's universe. Out of this upheaval, you must 
find, at Climax, a resolution, for better or worse, that rearranges 
this universe into a new order. 




The second element of the five-part design is Progressive Complications: 
that great sweeping body of story that spans from Inciting Incident to 
Crisis/Climax of the final act. To complicate means to make life diffi¬ 
cult for characters. To complicate progressively means to generate 
more and more conflict as they face greater and greater forces of antag¬ 
onism, creating a succession of events that passes points of no return. 

Points of No Return 

The Inciting Incident launches the protagonist on a quest for a 
conscious or unconscious Object of Desire to restore life's balance. 
To begin the pursuit of his desire, he takes a minimum, conserva¬ 
tive action to provoke a positive response from his reality. But the 
effect of his action is to arouse forces of antagonism from inner, 
personal, or social/environmental Levels of Conflict that block his 
desire, cracking open the Gap between expectation and result. 

When the Gap opens, the audience realizes that this is a point 
of no return. Minimal efforts won't work. The character can’t 
restore the balance of life by taking lesser actions. Henceforth, all 
action like the character’s first effort, actions of minor quality and 
magnitude, must be eliminated from the story. 

Realizing he’s at risk, the protagonist draws upon greater 
willpower and capacity to struggle through this gap and take a 



second, more difficult action. But again the effect is to provoke forces 
of antagonism, opening a second gap between expectation and result. 

The audience now senses that this too is a point of no return. 
Moderate actions like the second won’t succeed. Therefore, all 
actions of this magnitude and quality must be eliminated. 

At greater risk, the character must adjust to his changed circum¬ 
stances and take an action that demands even more willpower and 
personal capacity, expecting or at least hoping for a helpful or man¬ 
ageable reaction from his world. But once more the gap flies open as 
even more powerful forces of antagonism react to his third action. 

Again, the audience recognizes that this is yet another point of 
no return. The more extreme actions won’t get the character what 
he wants, so these too are canceled out of consideration. 

Progressions build by drawing upon greater and greater capaci¬ 
ties from characters, demanding greater and greater willpower from 
them, putting them at greater and greater risk, constantly passing 
points of no return in terms of the magnitude or quality of action. 

A story must not retreat to actions of lesser quality or 
magnitude, but move progressively forward to a final 
action beyond which the audience cannot imagine 

How many times have you had this experience? A film begins 
well, hooking you into the lives of the characters. It builds with 
strong interest over the first half-hour to a major Turning Point. 
But then forty or fifty minutes into the film, it starts to drag. Your 
eyes wander from the screen; you glance at your watch; you wish 
you’d bought more popcorn; you start paying attention to the 
anatomy of the person you came with. Perhaps the film gains pace 
again and finishes well, but for twenty or thirty flabby minutes in 
the middle you lost interest. 

If you look closely at the soft bellies that hang out over the belt of 
so many films, you’ll discover that this is where the writer’s insight 
and imagination went limp. He couldn’t build progressions, so in 
effect he put the story in retrograde. In the middle of Act Two he’s 


given his characters lesser actions of the kind they've already done in 
Act One—not identical actions but actions of a similar size or kind: 
minimal, conservative, and by now trivial. As we watch, our instincts 
tell us that these actions didn’t get the character what he wanted in 
Act One, therefore they're not going to get him what he wants in Act 
Two. The writer is recycling story and we’re treading water. 

The only way to keep a film’s current flowing and rising is 
research—imagination, memory, fact. Generally, a feature-length 
Archplot is designed around forty to sixty scenes that conspire into 
twelve to eighteen sequences that build into three or more acts that 
top one another continuously to the end of the line. To create forty 
to sixty scenes and not repeat yourself, you need to invent hundreds. 
After sketching this mountain of material, tunnel to find those few 
gems that will build sequences and acts into memorable and 
moving points of no return. For if you devise only the forty to sixty 
scenes needed to fill the 120 pages of a screenplay, your work is 
almost certain to be antiprogressive and repetitious. 

The Law of Conflict 

When the protagonist steps out of the Inciting Incident, he enters a 
world governed by the Law of Conflict. To wit: Nothing moves for¬ 
ward in a story except through conflict. 

Put another way, conflict is to storytelling what sound is to 
music. Both story and music are temporal arts, and the single most 
difficult task of the temporal artist is to hook our interest, hold our 
uninterrupted concentration, then carry us through time without an 
awareness of the passage of time. 

In music, this effect is accomplished through sound. Instru¬ 
ments or voices capture us and move us along, making time vanish. 
Suppose we were listening to a symphony and the orchestra sud¬ 
denly fell silent. What would be the effect? First, confusion as we 
wonder why they’ve stopped, then very quickly we would hear in our 
imaginations the sound of a ticking clock. We would become acutely 
aware of the passage of time, and because time is so subjective, if the 
orchestra were silent for just three minutes, it would seem like thirty. 


The music of story is conflict. As long as conflict engages our 
thoughts and emotions we travel through the hours unaware of the 
voyage. Then suddenly the film’s over. We glance at our watches, 
amazed. But when conflict disappears, so do we. The pictorial 
interest of eye-pleasing photography or the aural pleasures of a 
beautiful score may hold us briefly, but if conflict is kept on hold 
for too long, our eyes leave the screen. And when our eyes leave the 
screen they take thought and emotion with them. 

The Law of Conflict is more than an aesthetic principle; it is the 
soul of story. Story is metaphor for life, and to be alive is to be in 
seemingly perpetual conflict. As Jean-Paul Sartre expressed it, the 
essence of reality is scarcity, a universal and eternal lacking. There 
isn’t enough of anything in this world to go around. Not enough 
food, not enough love, not enough justice, and never enough time. 
Time, as Heidegger observed, is the basic category of existence. We 
live in its ever-shrinking shadow, and if we are to achieve anything 
in our brief being that lets us die without feeling we’ve wasted our 
time, we will have to go into heady conflict with the forces of 
scarcity that deny our desires. 

Writers who cannot grasp the truth of our transitory existence, 
who have been mislead by the counterfeit comforts of the modem 
world, who believe that life is easy once you know how to play the 
game, give conflict a false inflection. Their scripts fail for one of 
two reasons: either a glut of meaningless and absurdly violent con¬ 
flict, or a vacancy of meaningful and honestly expressed conflict. 

The former are exercises in turbo special effects, written by 
those who follow textbook imperatives to create conflict, but, 
because they’re disinterested in or insensitive to the honest strug¬ 
gles of life, devise phony, overwrought excuses for mayhem. 

The latter are tedious portraits written in reaction against con¬ 
flict itself. These writers take the Pollyanna view that life would 
really be nice ... if it weren’t for conflict. Therefore, their films 
avoid it in favor of low-key depictions to suggest that if we learned to 
communicate a little better, be a little more charitable, respect the 
environment, humanity could return to paradise. But if history has 
taught us anything, it’s that when toxic nightmare is finally cleaned 


up, the homeless provided shelter, and the world converted to solar 
energy, each of us will still be up to our eyebrows in mulch. 

Writers at these extremes fail to realize that while the quality of 
conflict changes as it shifts from level to level, the quantity of conflict 
in life is constant. Something is always lacking. Like squeezing a bal¬ 
loon, the volume of conflict never changes, it just bulges in another 
direction. When we remove conflict from one level of life, it ampli¬ 
fies ten times over on another level. 

If, for example, we manage to satisfy our external desires and find 
harmony with the world, in short order serenity turns to boredom. 
Now Sartre’s “scarcity” is the absence of conflict itself. Boredom is 
the inner conflict we suffer when we lose desire, when we lack a 
lacking. What’s worse, if we were to put on screen the conflictless 
existence of a character who, day-in, day-out, lives in placid content¬ 
ment, the boredom in the audience would be palpably painful. 

By and large, the struggle for physical survival has been elimi¬ 
nated for the educated classes of the industrialized nations. This 
security from the outside world gives us time to reflect on the 
world inside. Once housed, dressed, fed, and medicated, we take a 
breath and realize how incomplete we are as human beings. We 
want more than physical comfort, we want, of all things, happiness, 
and so begin the wars of the inner life. 

If, as a writer, however, you find that the conflicts of mind, 
body, emotions, and soul do not interest you, then look into the 
Third World and see how the rest of humanity lives. The majority 
suffer short, painful existences, ridden with disease and hunger, 
terrorized by tyranny and lawless violence, without hope that life 
will ever be any different for their children. 

If the depth and breadth of conflict in the inner life and the 
greater world do not move you, let this: death. Death is like a 
freight train in the future, heading toward us, closing the hours, 
second by second, between now and then. If we’re to live with any 
sense of satisfaction, we must engage life’s forces of antagonism 
before the train arrives. 

An artist intent on creating works of lasting quality comes to 
realize that life isn’t about subtle adjustments to stress, or hyper- 


conflicts of master criminals with stolen nuclear devices holding 
cities for ransom. Life is about the ultimate questions of finding 
love and self-worth, of bringing serenity to inner chaos, of the 
titanic social inequities everywhere around us, of time running out. 
Life is conflict. That is its nature. The writer must decide where 
and how to orchestrate this struggle. 

Complication Versus Complexity 

To complicate a story the writer builds conflict progressively to 
the end of the line. Difficult enough. But the task increases geo¬ 
metrically when we take story from mere complication to full 

Conflict may come, as we've seen, from any one, two, or all 
three of the levels of antagonism. To simply complicate a story 
means to place all conflict on only one of these three levels. 

From the Horror Film to Action/Adventure to Farce , action 
heroes face conflict only on the extra-personal level. James Bond, 
for example, has no inner conflicts, nor would we mistake his 
encounters with women as personal—they’re recreational. 



INNER CONFLICT — Stream of Consciousness 


EXTRA-PERSONAL CONFLICT - Action/Adventure, Farce 

Complicated films share two hallmarks. The first is a large cast. 
If the writer restricts the protagonist to social conflict, he'll need, as 
the advertising declares, “a cast of thousands.” James Bond faces 
arch-villains along with their minions, assassins, femmes fatale, 
and armies, plus helper characters and civilians needing rescue— 


more and more characters to build more and more powerful con¬ 
flicts between Bond and society. 

Second, a complicated film needs multiple sets and locations. 
If the writer progresses via physical conflict, he must keep 
changing the environment. A Bond film might start in a Viennese 
opera house, then go to the Himalayas, across the Sahara Desert, 
under the polar ice cap, up to the moon, and down to Broadway, 
giving Bond more and more opportunities for fascinating feats of 

Stories that are complicated only on the level of personal con¬ 
flict are known as Soap Opera, an open-ended combination of 
Domestic Drama and Love Story in which every character in the 
story has an intimate relationship with every other character in the 
story—a multitude of family, friends, and lovers, all needing sets 
to house them: living rooms, bedrooms, offices, nightclubs, hospi¬ 
tals. Soap Opera characters have no inner or extra-personal con¬ 
flicts. They suffer when they don’t get what they want, but because 
they’re either good people or bad, they rarely face true inner 
dilemmas. Society never intervenes in their air-conditioned worlds. 
If, for example, a murder should bring a detective, a representative 
of society, into the story, you can be certain that within a week this 
cop will have an intimate and personal relationship with every 
other character in the Soap. 

Stories that are complicated only on the level of inner con¬ 
flict are not films, plays, or conventional novels. They’re prose 
works in the Stream of Consciousness genre, a verbalization of the 
inscape of thought and feeling. Again, a large cast. Even though 
we’re placed inside a single character, that character’s mind is 
populated with the memories and imaginings of everyone he has 
ever met or could hope to meet. What’s more, the density of 
imagery in the Stream of Consciousness work, such as NAKED 
LUNCH, is so intense that locations change, as it were, three or 
four times in a single sentence. A barrage of places and faces 
pours through the reader’s imagination, but these works are 
all on one, albeit richly subjective, level and, therefore, merely 




To achieve complexity the writer brings his characters into con¬ 
flict on all three levels of life, often simultaneously. For example, 
the deceptively simple but complex writing of one of the most 
memorable events in any film for the last two decades: the French 
toast scene from KRAMER VS. KRAMER. This famous scene turns 
on a complex of three values: self-confidence, a child's trust and 
esteem for his father, and domestic survival. As the scene begins, 
all three are at the positive charge. 

In the film's first moments Kramer discovers his wife has left 
him and his son. He’s torn with an inner conflict that takes the 
form of doubts and fears that he’s in over his head versus a male 
arrogance telling him whatever women do is easy. As he opens the 
scene, however, he’s confident. 

Kramer has personal conflict. His son is hysterical, afraid he’ll 
starve without his mother to feed him. Kramer tries to calm his 
son, telling him not to worry, Mom will be back, but meantime it’ll 
be fun, like camping out. The child dries his eyes, trusting his 
father’s promises. 

Finally, Kramer has extra-personal conflict. The kitchen is an 
alien world, but he strolls into it as if he were a French chef. 

Perching his son on a stool, Kramer asks what he wants for break¬ 
fast and the kid says, “French toast.” Kramer takes a breath, pulls out a 
frying pan, pours in some grease, puts the pan on the stove, and turns 
the flame to high while he looks for ingredients. He knows French 
toast involves eggs, so he searches the refrigerator and finds some, but 
doesn’t know into what to break them. He rummages in the cupboard 
and comes down with a coffee mug that reads “Teddy.” 

The son sees the handwriting on the wall and warns Kramer that 
he’s seen his mother do this and she doesn't use a mug. Kramer tells 



him it’ll work. He cracks the eggs. Some actually gets into the mug, 
the rest makes a gooey mess . . . and the child starts to cry. 

The grease starts to spatter in the frying pan and Kramer 
panics. It doesn’t occur to him to turn off the gas; instead, he 
engages in a race against time. He bangs more eggs into the mug, 
rushes back to the refrigerator, grabs a quart of milk, and slops it 
up and over the brim of the mug. He finds a butter knife to break 
up the yolks, making an even gooier mess. The child can see he is 
not going to eat this morning and cries his eyes out. The grease is 
now smoking in the pan. 

Kramer, desperate, angry, losing the fight to control his fears, 
grabs a slice of Wonder Bread, stares at it, and realizes it won't fit 
in the mug. He folds it in half and stuffs it in, coming up with a 
dripping handful of soggy bread, yolk, and milk that he flings at the 
griddle, spattering and burning him and the child. He snatches the 
pan from the stove, scalding his hand, clutches his son’s arm, and 
pushes him through the door, saying, "We’ll go to a restaurant.” 

Kramer’s male arrogance is overwhelmed by his fears, his self- 
confidence turning positive to negative. He’s humiliated in front of 
his frightened child, whose trust and esteem turn positive to nega¬ 
tive. He’s defeated by a seemingly animated kitchen, as blow by 
blow, eggs, grease, bread, milk, and pan send him stumbling out 
the door, turning domestic survival from positive to negative. With 
very little dialogue and the simple activity of a man trying to make 
breakfast for his son, the scene becomes one of the most memo¬ 
rable in film—a three-minute drama of a man in simultaneous 
conflict with the complexities of life. 

Unless it’s your ambition to write in the Action genres, Soap 
Opera , or Stream of Consciousness prose, my advice to most writers is 
to design relatively simple but complex stories. “Relatively simple” 
doesn't mean simplistic. It means beautifully turned and told stories 
restrained by these two principles: Do not proliferate characters; do 
not multiply locations. Rather than hopscotching through time, 
space, and people, discipline yourself to a reasonably contained cast 
and world, while you concentrate on creating a rich complexity. 


Act Design 

As a symphony unfolds in three, four, or more movements, so story 
is told in movements called acts —the macro-structure of story. 

Beats, changing patterns of human behavior, build scenes. Ide¬ 
ally, every scene becomes a Turning Point in which the values at 
stake swing from the positive to the negative or the negative to the 
positive, creating significant but minor change in their lives. A series 
of scenes build a sequence that culminates in a scene that has a mod¬ 
erate impact on the characters, turning or changing values for better 
or worse to a greater degree than any scene. A series of sequences 
builds an act that climaxes in a scene that creates a major reversal in 
the characters’ lives, greater than any sequence accomplished. 

In the Poetics, Aristotle deduces that there is a relationship 
between the size of the story—how long it takes to read or per¬ 
form—and the number of major Turning Points necessary to tell 
it: the longer the work, the more major reversals. In other words, in 
his polite way, Aristotle is pleading, “Please don’t bore us. Don’t 
make us sit for hours on those hard marble seats listening to choral 
chants and laments while nothing actually happens.” 

Following Aristotle’s principle: A story can be told in one act— 
a series of scenes that shape a few sequences that build up to one 
major reversal, ending the story. But if so, it must be brief. This is 
the prose short story, the one-act play, or the student or experi¬ 
mental film of perhaps five to twenty minutes. 

A story can be told in two acts: two major reversals and it’s 
over. But again it must be relatively brief: the sitcom, the novella, 
or hour-length plays such as Anthony Shaffer’s Black Comedy and 
August Strindberg’s Miss Julie. 

But when a story reaches a certain magnitude—the feature 
film, an hour-long TV episode, the full-length play, the novel— 
three acts is the minimum. Not because of an artificial convention, 
but to serve a profound purpose. 

As audience we embrace the story artist and say: “I'd like a poetic 
experience in breadth and depth to the limits of life. But I’m a reason¬ 
able person. If I give you only a few minutes to read or witness your 


work, it would be unfair of me to demand that you to take me to the 
limit. Instead I’d like a moment of pleasure, an insight or two, no more 
than that. But if I give you important hours of my life, I expect you to 
be an artist of power who can reach the boundaries of experience.” 

In our effort to satisfy the audience’s need, to tell stories that 
touch the innermost and outermost sources of life, two major 
reversals are never enough. No matter the setting or scope of the 
telling, no matter how international and epic or intimate and inte¬ 
rior, three major reversals are the necessary minimum for a full- 
length work of narrative art to reach the end of the line. 

Consider these rhythms: Things were bad, then they were 
good—end of story. Or things were good, then they were bad— 
end of story. Or things were bad, then they were very bad—end of 
story. Or things were good, then they were very good—end of 
story. In all four cases we feel something’s lacking. We know that 
the second event, whether positively or negatively charged, is nei¬ 
ther the end nor the limit. Even if the second event kills the cast: 
Things were good (or bad), then everyone died—end of story—it’s 
not enough. “Okay, they're all dead. Now what?” we’re wondering. 
The third turn is missing and we know we haven’t touched the 
limit until at least one more major reversal occurs. Therefore, the 
three-act story rhythm was the foundation of story art for centuries 
before Aristotle noted it. 

But it’s only a foundation, not a formula, so I’ll begin with it, 
then delineate some of its infinite variations. The proportions I’ll 
use are the rhythms of the feature film, but in principle they apply 
equally to the play and novel. Again, I caution that these are 
approximations, not formulas. 



Central * 

Act 1 


---70 Minutes-- 

Act II 

Act III 



118 120 



The first act, the opening movement, typically consumes about 
25 percent of the telling, the Act One Climax occurring between 
twenty and thirty minutes into a 120-minute film. The last act 
wants to be the shortest of all. In the ideal last act we want to give 
the audience a sense of acceleration, a swiftly rising action to 
Climax. If the writer tries to stretch out the last act, the pace of 
acceleration is almost certain to slow in mid-movement. So last acts 
are generally brief, twenty minutes or less. 

Let's say a 120-minute film places its Central Plot's Inciting 
Incident in the first minute, the Act One Climax at the thirty- 
minute point, has an eighteen-minute Act Three, and a two-minute 
Resolution to FADE OUT. This rhythm creates an Act Two that’s 
seventy minutes long. If an otherwise well-told story bogs down, 
that’s where it’ll happen—as the writer sloshes through the 
swamps of the long second act. There are two possible -solutions: 
Add subplots or more acts. 


INCIDENT Act 1 Act 11 Act III 

Central ft t t 

Plot: ! 30 100 118 



plot ♦ t 

A: 1.25 r.60 



plot t f t 

B: 1 .15 45 .75 


Sub- INCIDENT Act I Actll j Act 111 

p |ot t t * t 

C: 1 ..50 90 118 

Subplots have their own act structure, although usually brief. 
Between the central plot’s three-act design above, let’s weave three 
subplots: a one-act Subplot A with an Inciting Incident twenty-five 
minutes into the film, climaxing and ending at sixty minutes; a 


two-act Subplot B with an Inciting Incident at the fifteen-minute 
point, an Act One Climax at forty-five minutes, ending with an Act 
Two Climax at seventy-five minutes; a three-act Subplot C is with 
its Inciting Incident happening inside the Inciting Incident of the 
Central Plot (lovers meet, for example, and start a subplot in the 
same scene cops discover the crime that launches the central plot), 
an Act One Climax at fifty minutes, an Act Two Climax at ninety 
minutes, and a third act climaxing inside the Central Plot's last 
Climax (the lovers decide to marry in the same scene that they 
apprehend the criminal). 

Although the Central Plot and three subplots may have up to 
four different protagonists, an audience could empathize with all 
of them, and each subplot raises its own Major Dramatic Ques¬ 
tion. So the interest and emotions of the audience are hooked, 
held, and amplified by four stories. What’s more, the three sub¬ 
plots have five major reversals that fall between the Central Plot's 
Act One and Act Two climaxes—more than enough storytelling to 
keep the overall film progressing, deepen the involvement of the 
audience, and tighten the soft belly of the Central Plot’s second 

On the other hand, not every film needs or wants a subplot: 
THE FUGITIVE. How then does the writer solve the problem of 
the long second act? By creating more acts. The three-act design is 
the minimum. If the writer builds progressions to a major reversal 
at the halfway point, he breaks the story into four movements with 
no act more than thirty or forty minutes long. David's collapse after 
performing Rachmaninoffs Piano Concerto No. 3 in SHINE is a 
superb example. In Hollywood this technique is known as the Mid- 
Act Climax, a term that sounds like sexual dysfunction, but means 
a major reversal in the middle of Act Two, expanding the design 
from three acts to an Ibsen-like rhythm of four acts, accelerating 
the mid-film pace. 

A film could have a Shakespearean rhythm of five acts: FOUR 
& HER LOVER in eight. These films turn a major reversal every fif- 








teen or twenty minutes, decisively solving the long second act 
problem. But the five- to eight-act design is the exception, for the 
cure of one problem is the cause of others. 





Act I 



Act II 

Act III Act IV 

1 30 60 


100 118 120 




^ Act 1 

Act II 

Act III 

Act IV 


1 25 




118 120 




^ Act I Act II Act 111 Act IV Act V Act VI Act VII Act VIII 

1 15 30 45 60 75 90 105 120 

First, the multiplication of act climaxes invites cliches. 

Generally, a three-act story requires four memorable scenes: 
the Inciting Incident that opens the telling, and an Act One, Act 
Two, and Act Three Climax. In the Inciting Incident of KRAMER 
VS. KRAMER Mrs. Kramer walks out on her husband and her son. 
Act One Climax: She returns, demanding custody of the child. Act 
Two Climax: The court awards custody of the son to his mother. 
Act Three Climax: Like her ex-husband, she realizes that they must 
act selflessly for the best interest of the child they love and returns 
the boy to Kramer. Four powerful turning points spanned with 
excellent scenes and sequences. 


When the writer multiplies acts, he’s forcing the invention of 
five, perhaps six, seven, eight, nine, or more brilliant scenes. This 
becomes a creative task beyond his reach, so he resorts to the 
cliches that infest so many action films. 

Second, the multiplication of acts reduces the impact 

of climaxes and results in repetitiousness. 

Even if the writer feels he’s up to creating a major reversal 
every fifteen minutes, turning act climaxes on scenes of life and 
death, life and death, life and death, life and death, life and death, 
seven or eight times over, boredom sets in. Before too long the 
audience is yawning: “That’s not a major turn. That’s his day. Every 
fifteen minutes somebody tries to kill the guy.” 

What is major is relative to what is moderate and minor. If 
every scene screams to be heard, we go deaf. When too many 
scenes strive to be powerhouse climaxes, what should be major 
becomes minor, repetitious, running downhill to a halt. This is 
why a three-act Central Plot with subplots has become a kind of 
standard. It fits the creative powers of most writers, provides com¬ 
plexity, and avoids repetition. 

Design Variations 

First, stories vary according to the number of major reversals in the 
telling: from the one- or two-act design of Miniplots, LEAVING 
LAS VEGAS, through the three- or four-acts plus subplots of most 
Archplots, THE VERDICT, to the seven or eight acts of many 
action genres, SPEED, to the helter-skelter patterns of Antiplots, 
Multiplot films that have no Central Plot, THE JOY LUCK CLUB, 
but may contain a dozen or more major Turning Points over their 
various story lines. 

Second, the shapes of stories vary according to the placement 
of the Inciting Incident. Conventionally, the Inciting Incident 
occurs very early in the telling and progressions build to a major 


reversal at the Act One Climax twenty or thirty minutes later. This 
pattern requires the writer to place two major scenes in the first 
quarter of the film. However, the Inciting Incident may enter as 
late as twenty, thirty, or more minutes into the telling. ROCKY, for 
example, has a very late-arriving Central Plot Inciting Incident. The 
effect of this is that the Inciting Incident becomes, in effect, the 
first act Climax and serves two purposes. 



Adrian's Subplot: 







Act I 


Act II Act III 
90 105 

This, however, cannot be done for the convenience of the 
writer. The only reason to delay the entrance of the Central Plot is 
the audience’s need to know the protagonist at length so it can fully 
react to the Inciting Incident. If this is necessary, then a setup sub¬ 
plot must open the telling. ROCKY has one, the Adrian/Rocky Love 
Story; CASABLANCA uses five with Laszlo, Ugarte, Yvonne, and 
the Bulgarian wife as single protagonists and refugees as the plural 
protagonist. Story must be told to hold the audience while it waits 
for a late-arriving Central Plot to ripen. 

Suppose, however, the ripe moment is reached somewhere 
between the first and thirtieth minute. Does a film then need a 
setup subplot to carry the opening? Maybe . . . maybe not. The 
Inciting Incident of THE WIZARD OF OZ occurs at the fifteen- 
minute mark when a cyclone carries Dorothy (Judy Garland) to 
Munchkinland. There’s no subplot to set this up, rather we’re held 
by dramatized exposition of her longing to go “somewhere over the 
rainbow.” In ADAM’S RIB the Inciting Incident also arrives fifteen 
minutes into the film, as district attorney Adam Bonner (Spencer 
Tracy) and his defense attorney wife Amanda (Katharine Hepburn) 


discover themselves on opposing sides of a trial. In this case, the 
film opens with a setup subplot as defendant (Judy Holliday) dis¬ 
covers her husband’s philandering and shoots him. This hooks and 
carries us to the Central Plot’s Inciting Incident. 

With an Inciting Incident at the fifteen-minute point, does the 
writer need a major reversal at the thirty-minute point? Maybe . . . 
maybe not. In THE WIZARD OF OZ Dorothy is threatened by the 
Wicked Witch of the West, given the red slippers, and sent on her 
quest along the yellow brick road fifteen minutes after the Inciting 
Incident. In ADAM’S RIB the next major reversal of the Central 
Plot happens forty minutes after the Inciting Incident when 
Amanda wins a key point in court. However, a relationship subplot 
complicates this stretch as a composer (David Wayne), to Adam’s 
great annoyance, flirts openly with Amanda. 

The rhythm of act movements is established by the location of 
the Central Plot’s Inciting Incident. Act structure, therefore, varies 
enormously. The number and placement of the major reversals for 
both main plot and subplots are choices made in the creative play 
between artist and material, depending on quality and number of 
protagonists, sources of antagonism, genre, and, ultimately, the 
personality and worldview of the writer. 

False Ending 

Occasionally, especially in Action genres, at the Penultimate Act 
Climax or within the last act’s movement, the writer creates a False 
Ending: a scene so seemingly complete we think for a moment the 
story is over. E.T. is dead—end of movie, we think. In ALIEN 
Ripley blows up her spaceship and escapes, we think. In ALIENS 
she blows up an entire planet and escapes, we hope. In BRAZIL 
Jonathan (Sam Lowry) rescues Kim (Jill Layton) from a tyrannical 
regime, the lovers embrace, happy ending ... or is it? 

TERMINATOR devised a double False Ending: Reese (Michael 
Biehn) and Sarah (Linda Hamilton) blow up the Terminator 
(Arnold Schwarzenegger) with a tankard of gasoline, its flesh 
burning away. The lovers celebrate. But then the chrome inner 


version of this half-man/half-robot rises out of the flames. Reese 
sacrifices his life to put a pipe bomb in the belly of the Terminator 
and blow it in half. But then the creature’s torso revives and crawls 
claw over claw toward the wounded heroine until Sarah finally 
destroys him. 

False Endings may even find their way into Art Films . Near the 
climax of JESUS OF MONTREAL Daniel (Lothaire Bluteau), an 
actor playing Christ in a Passion Play, is bludgeoned by his falling 
crucifix. Other actors rush him unconscious to the emergency 
room, but he awakes, resurrected, we pray. 

Hitchcock loved False Endings, placing them unconventionally 
early for shock effect. The “suicide” of Madeleine (Kim Novak) is 
the Mid-Act Climax of VERTIGO before she reappears as Judy. The 
shower murder of Marion (Janet Leigh) marks the Act One Climax 
of PSYCHO, suddenly shifting genres from Caper to Psycho-Thriller 
and switching protagonists from Marion to a plural protagonist of 
the dead woman’s sister, lover, and a private eye. 

For most films, however, the False Ending is inappropriate. 
Instead, the Penultimate Act Climax should intensify the Major 
Dramatic Question: “Now what’s going to happen?” 

Act Rhythm 

Repetitiousness is the enemy of rhythm. The dynamics of story 
depend on the alternation of its value-charges. For example, the 
two most powerful scenes in a story are the last two act climaxes. 
Onscreen they’re often only ten or fifteen minutes apart. Therefore, 
they cannot repeat the same charge. If the protagonist achieves his 
Object of Desire, making the last act’s Story Climax positive, then 
the Penultimate Act Climax must be negative. You cannot set up 
an up-ending with an up-ending: “Things were wonderful. . . then 
they got even better!” Conversely, if the protagonist fails to achieve 
his desire, the Climax of the Penultimate Act cannot be negative. 
You cannot set up a down-ending with a down-ending: “Things 
were terrible . . . then they got even worse.” When emotional expe¬ 
rience repeats, the power of the second event is cut in half. And if 


the power of the Story Climax is halved, the power of the film is 

On the other hand, a story may climax in irony, an ending 
that’s both positive and negative. What then must be the emotional 
charge of the Penultimate Climax? The answer’s found in close 
study of the Story Climax, for although irony is somewhat positive, 
somewhat negative, it should never be balanced. If it is, the positive 
and negative values cancel each other out and the story ends in a 
bland neutrality. 

For example, Othello finally achieves his desire: a wife who 
loves him and has never betrayed him with another man—posi¬ 
tive. However, when he discovers this, it’s too late because he’s just 
murdered her—an overall negative irony. Mrs. Soffel goes to 
prison for the rest of her life—negative. But she goes into jail with 
her head up because she’s achieved her desire, the transcendent 
romantic experience—an overall positive irony. With careful 
thought and feeling the writer studies his irony to make certain it 
leans one way or the other, and then designs a Penultimate Climax 
to contradict its overall emotional charge. 

Working back from the Penultimate Climax to the opening 
scene, previous act climaxes are further apart, often with subplot 
and sequence climaxes coming into emotional play between them, 
creating a unique rhythm of positive and negative turnings. Conse¬ 
quently, although we know that the Ultimate and Penultimate Cli¬ 
maxes must contradict each other, from story to story there is no 
way to predict the charges of the other act climaxes. Each film finds 
its own rhythm and all variations are possible. 

Subplots and Multiple Plots 

A subplot receives less emphasis and screentime than a Central 
Plot, but often it’s the invention of a subplot that lifts a troubled 
screenplay to a film worth making. WITNESS, for example, 
without its Love Story subplot of big-city cop and Amish widow 
would be a less than compelling Thriller. Multiplot films, on the 
other hand, never develop a Central Plot; rather they weave 


together a number of stories of subplot size. Between the Central 
Plot and its subplots or between the various plot lines of a Multi¬ 
plot, four possible relationships come into play. 

A subplot may be used to contradict the Controlling 
Idea of the Central Plot and thus enrich the film with 

Suppose you were writing a happy-ending Love Story with the 
Controlling Idea “Love triumphs because the lovers sacrifice their 
needs for each other.” You believe in your characters, their pas¬ 
sion and self-sacrifice, yet you feel the story’s becoming too 
sweet, too pat. To balance the telling, you might then create a 
subplot of two other characters whose love ends tragically 
because they betray each other out of emotional greed. This down¬ 
ending subplot contradicts the up-ending Central Plot, making 
the film’s overall meaning more complex and ironic: “Love cuts 
two ways: we possess it when we give it freedom, but destroy it 
with possessiveness.” 

Subplots may be used to resonate the Controlling Idea 
of the Central Plot and enrich the film with variations on 
a theme. 

If a subplot expresses the same Controlling Idea as the main 
plot, but in a different, perhaps unusual way, it creates a variation 
that strengthens and reinforces the theme. All the many love sto¬ 
ries in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, for example, end hap¬ 
pily—but some sweetly, some farcically, some sublimely. 

The principle of thematic contradiction and variation is the 
genesis of Multiplot films. A Multiplot has no Central Plot Spine to 
structurally unify the telling. Instead, a number of plot lines either 
cross-cut, as in SHORT CUTS, or connect via a motif such as the 
twenty-dollar bill that passes from story to story in TWENTY 
BUCKS or the series of swimming pools that link the tales in THE 
SWIMMER—a collection of “ribs” but no individual plot line 


strong enough to carry from first scene to last. What then holds the 
film together? An idea. 

PARENTHOOD plays variations on the notion that in the game 
of parenthood you cannot win. Steve Martin plays the world’s most 
attentive father whose child still ends up in therapy. Jason Robards 
plays the world’s most neglectful father whose kid comes back late 
in life needing him, then betraying him. Dianne Wiest portrays a 
mother who tries to make all the safe life decisions for her child, 
but the child knows better than she does. All parents can do is love 
their children, support them, pick them up when they fall. But 
there’s no such thing as winning this game. 

DINER resonates with the idea that men cannot communicate 
with women. Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) cannot bring himself to speak 
to a woman. Boogie (Mickey Rourke) talks nonstop to women, but 
only to get them into bed. Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) won’t marry 
his fiancee until she can pass a test in football trivia. When Billy 
(Timothy Daly) faces his emotional issues with the woman he 
loves, he lets his guard down and talks honestly with her. Once able 
to communicate with a woman, he leaves his friends—a resolution 
that contradicts all others to add a layer of irony. 

The Multiplot frames an image of a particular society, but, 
unlike the static Nonplot, it weaves small stories around an idea, so 
that these group photos vibrate with energy. DO THE RIGHT 
THING depicts the universality of big-city racism; SHORT CUTS 
landscapes the soullessness of the American middle class; EAT 
DRINK MAN WOMAN paints a triptych of the father/daughter 
relationship. Multiplot gives the writer the best of both worlds: a 
portrait that captures the essence of a culture or community along 
with ample narrative drive to compel interest. 

When the Central Plot's Inciting Incident must be 
delayed, a setup subplot may be needed to open the 

A late-arriving Central Plot—ROCKY, CHINATOWN, CASA¬ 
BLANCA—leaves a story vacuum for the first thirty minutes that 


must be filled by subplots to engage the audience’s interest and 
acquaint it with the protagonist and his world in order to evoke a 
full reaction to its Inciting Incident. A setup subplot dramatizes the 
Central Plot’s exposition so that it’s absorbed in a fluid, indirect 

A subplot may be used to complicate the Central Plot. 

This fourth relationship is the most important: use of the subplot 
as an additional source of antagonism. For example, the Love Story 
typically found inside Crime Stories: In SEA OF LOVE Frank Keller (A1 
Pacino) falls in love with Helen (Ellen Barkin). While hunting down 
her psychotic ex-husband, he risks his life to protect the woman he 
loves. In BLACK WIDOW a federal agent (Debra Winger) becomes 
infatuated with the killer herself (Theresa Russell). In THE VER¬ 
DICT, a Courtroom Drama , Frank (Paul Newman) falls in love with 
Laura (Charlotte Rampling), a spy from the opposing law firm. These 
subplots add dimension to characters, create comic or romantic relief 
from the tensions or violence of the Central Plot, but their primary 
purpose is to make life more difficult for the protagonist. 

The balance of emphasis between the Central Plot and subplot 
has to be carefully controlled, or the writer risks losing focus on the 
primary story. A setup subplot is particularly dangerous in that it 
may mislead the audience as to genre. The opening Love Story of 
ROCKY, for example, was carefully handled so that we knew we 
were heading for the Sports Genre. 

Additionally, if the protagonists of the Central Plot and subplot 
are not the same character, care must be taken not to draw too 
much empathy to the subplot's protagonist. CASABLANCA, for 
example, has a Political Drama subplot involving the fate of Victor 
Laszlo (Paul Heinreid) and a Thriller subplot centered on Ugarte 
(Peter Lorre), but both were deemphasized to keep the emotional 
spotlight on the Central Plot’s Love Story of Rick (Humphrey 
Bogart) and lisa (Ingrid Bergman). To deemphasize a subplot, 
some of its elements—Inciting Incident, act climaxes, Crisis, 
Climax, or Resolution—may be kept offscreen. 


If, on the other hand, as you develop your screenplay, your sub¬ 
plot seems to demand greater focus and empathy, then reconsider 
the overall design and turn your subplot into the Central Plot. 

If a subplot doesn’t thematically contradict or resonate the Con¬ 
trolling Idea of the main plot, if it doesn’t set up the introduction of 
the main plot’s Inciting Incident, or complicate the action on the 
main plot, if it merely runs alongside, it will split the story down 
the middle and destroy its effect. The audience understands the 
principle of aesthetic unity. It knows that every story element is 
there because of the relationship it strikes to every other element. 
This relationship, structural or thematic, holds the work together. 
If the audience can’t find it, it’ll disengage from the story and con¬ 
sciously try to force a unity. When this fails, it sits in confusion. 

In the screen adaptation of the best-selling Psycho-Thriller THE 
FIRST DEADLY SIN, the Central Plot takes a police lieutenant 
(Frank Sinatra) on the hunt for a serial killer. In a subplot, his wife 
(Faye Dunaway) is in intensive care with only weeks to live. The 
detective hunts for the killer, then commiserates with his dying 
wife; he hunts the killer, then reads to his wife; he hunts for the 
killer some more, then visits her in the hospital again. Before long 
this alternating story design ignited a burning curiosity in the audi¬ 
ence: When will the killer come to the hospital? But he never does. 
Instead, the wife dies, the cop catches the killer, plot and subplot 
never connect, and the audience is left in disgruntled confusion. 

In Lawrence Sanders’ novel, however, this design succeeds 
with powerful effect because on the page main plot and subplot 
complicate each other in the mind of the protagonist : the cop’s fierce 
preoccupation with a psychotic killer conflicts with a desperate 
desire to give his wife the comfort she needs, while at the same 
time his dread of losing her and the pain of watching the woman 
he loves suffer contradicts his need for clear, rational deduction in 
pursuit of a ruthless but brilliant lunatic. A novelist can enter a 
character’s mind and in first- or third-person delineate inner con¬ 
flict directly in prose description. The screenwriter cannot. 

The screenwriting is the art of making the mental physical We 
create visual correlatives for inner conflict—not dialogue or narra- 


tion to describe ideas and emotions, but images of character choice 
and action to indirectly and ineffably express the thoughts and feel¬ 
ings within. Therefore, the interior life a novel must be reinvented 
for the screen. 

In adapting Manuel Puig's novel KISS OF THE SPIDER 
WOMAN, screenwriter Leonard Schrader was faced with a similar 
structural problem. Once again, main plot and subplot complicate 
one another only within the mind of the protagonist. The subplot, in 
fact, is Luis’ (William Hurt) fantasies of the Spider Woman (Sonia 
Braga), a character he idolizes, drawn from films he vaguely remem¬ 
bers and greatly embellishes. Schrader visualizes Luis’ dreams and 
desires by turning his fantasy into a film-within-the-film. 

Still, these two plots cannot causally interact because they're on 
different planes of reality. They are connected, however, by making 
the subplot’s story mirror the Central Plot. This gives Luis the 
chance to act out his fantasy in reality. At that moment the two 
plots collide in Luis’ psyche and the audience imagines the emo¬ 
tional battle raging within: Will Luis do in life what the Spider 
Woman did in his dreams? Will he too betray the man he loves? 
What’s more, the two plotlines ironize the Controlling Idea of Love 
Through Self sacrifice and give the film an added thematic unity. 

There’s yet another revealing exception in the design of KISS 
OF THE SPIDER WOMAN. In principle, the Central Plot’s 
Inciting Incident must be onscreen. But here the Inciting Incident 
is not revealed until the Mid-Act Climax. In the Backstory Luis, a 
homosexual convict imprisoned in a fascist dictatorship, is called 
into the warden’s office and made this offer: A leftist revolutionary, 
Valentin (Raul Julia), will be put in his cell. If Luis spies on him 
and gets valuable information, the warden will give Luis his 
freedom. The audience, unaware of this deal, waits through the 
first hour of the film to finally discover this Central Plot when Luis 
visits the warden asking for medicine and camomile tea for the 
ailing Valentin. 

For many this film began so tediously they nearly walked out. 
So why not open conventionally with the Inciting Incident, as does 
the novel, and start the story with a strong hook? Because, if 


Schrader had placed the scene in which Luis agrees to spy on a 
freedom fighter at the opening of the film, the audience would 
have instantly hated the protagonist. With a choice of a fast opening 
versus empathy for the protagonist, the screenwriter violated the 
design of the novel. While the novelist used inner narration to gain 
empathy, the screenwriter knew that he would first have to con¬ 
vince the audience that Luis loved Valentin before revealing Luis’ 
pact with the fascists. The right choice. Without empathy the film 
would be a hollow exercise in exotic photography. 

Faced with irreconcilable choices, such as pace versus empathy, 
the wise writer redesigns the story to preserve what’s vital. You’re 
free to break or bend convention, but for one reason only: to put 
something more important in its place. 



This chapter focuses on the components of scene design: Turning 
Points, Setups/Payoffs, Emotional Dynamics, and Choice. Chapter n 
will analyze two scenes to demonstrate how Beats, changing char¬ 
acter behaviors, shape a scene's inner life. 


A scene is a story in miniature—an action through conflict in a 
unity or continuity of time and space that turns the value-charged 
condition of a character’s life. In theory there's virtually no limit to 
a scene's length or locations. A scene may be infinitesimal. In the 
right context a scene consisting of a single shot in which a hand 
turns over a playing card could express great change. Conversely, 
ten minutes of action spread over a dozen sites on a battlefield 
may accomplish much less. No matter locations or length, a scene 
is unified around desire, action, conflict, and change. 

In each scene a character pursues a desire related to his imme¬ 
diate time and place. But this Scene-Objective must be an aspect of 
his Super-Objective or Spine, the story-long quest that spans from 
Inciting Incident to Story Climax. Within the scene, the character 
acts on his Scene-Objective by choosing under pressure to take 
one action or another. However, from any or all levels of conflict 
comes a reaction he didn't anticipate. The effect is to crack open 
the gap between expectation and result, turning his outer for¬ 
tunes, inner life, or both from the positive to the negative or the 



negative to the positive in terms of values the audience under¬ 
stands are at risk. 

A scene causes change in a minor, albeit significant way. A 
Sequence Climax is a scene that causes a moderate reversal— 
change with more impact than a scene. An Act Climax is a scene 
that causes a major reversal—change with greater impact than 
Sequence Climax. Accordingly, we never write a scene that’s 
merely a flat, static display of exposition; rather we strive for this 
ideal: to create a story design in which every scene is a minor, mod¬ 
erate, or major Turning Point. 

TRADING PLACES: The value at stake is wealth. Inspired by 
Porgy and Bess, Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) begs on the 
streets, pretending to be a paraplegic on a skateboard. A gap opens 
when police try to bust him, then widens enormously when two 
elderly businessmen, the Duke brothers (Ralph Bellamy and Don 
Ameche), suddenly intervene with the cops to save him. Billy’s beg¬ 
ging has caused his world to react differently and more powerfully 
than he expected. He doesn’t resist, but wisely chooses to sur¬ 
render to the gap. CUT TO: A walnut-paneled office where the 
Duke brothers have dressed him in a three-piece suit and made 
him a commodities broker. Billy's financial life goes from beggar to 
broker around this delightful Turning Point. 

WALL STREET: The values at stake are wealth and honesty. A 
young stockbroker, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), secures a meeting 
with billionaire Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). Bud lives from 
paycheck to paycheck, but his integrity is intact. When he proposes 
legitimate business ideas, his sales pitch provokes forces of antago¬ 
nism he couldn’t anticipate as Gekko retorts: “Tell me something I 
don’t know.” Suddenly Bud realizes Gekko doesn’t want to do 
honest business. He pauses, then reveals a corporate secret that his 
own father had told him. Bud chooses to join Gekko in an unlawful 
conspiracy, reversing his inner nature from honest to criminal and 
his fortunes from poor to rich around this powerful and ironic 
Turning Point. 

The effects of Turning Points are fourfold: surprise, increased 
curiosity, insight, and new direction. 


When a gap opens between expectation and result, it jolts the 
audience with surprise. The world has reacted in a way neither 
character nor audience had foreseen. This moment of shock 
instantly provokes curiosity as the audience wonders “Why?” 
TRADING PLACES: Why are these two old men saving this beggar 
from the police? WALL STREET: Why is Gekko saying: “Tell me 
something I don’t know." In an effort to satisfy its curiosity, the 
audience rushes back through what story it’s seen so far, seeking 
answers. In a beautifully designed story, these answers have been 
quietly but carefully layered in. 

TRADING PLACES: Our thoughts flit back to previous scenes 
with the Duke brothers and we realize that these old men are so 
bored with life they’ll use their wealth to play sadistic games. Fur¬ 
ther, they must have seen a spark of genius in this beggar or they 
wouldn’t have picked him to be their pawn. 

WALL STREET: The “why?” provoked by Gekko’s “Tell me 
something I don't know” is instantly answered by this insight: Of 
course Gekko’s a billionaire, he’s a crook. Almost no one becomes 
immensely rich honestly. He too likes games ... of a criminal 
kind. When Bud joins him, our memory dashes back to previous 
scenes at his office, and we realize that Bud was too ambitious and 
greedy—ripe for a fall. 

The nimble and perceptive mind of the audience finds these 
answers in a flash of understanding. The question “Why?” propels 
it back through the story, and what it’s seen so far instantly clicks 
into a new configuration; it experiences a rush of insight into char¬ 
acter and world, a satisfying layer of hidden truth. 

Insight adds to curiosity. This new understanding amplifies the 
questions “What’s going to happen next?" and “How will this turn 
out?” This effect, true in all genres, is vividly clear in Crime Stories. 
Someone goes to a closet for a clean shirt and a dead body falls out. 
This huge gap triggers a fusillade of questions: “Who committed 
this murder? How? When? Why? Will the killer be caught?” The 
writer must now satisfy the curiosity he’s created. From each point 
of changed value, he must move his story in a new direction to 
create Turning Points yet to come. 


KRAMER VS. KRAMER: The moment we see that a thirty-two- 
year-old man can’t make breakfast the scene turns. The question 
“Why?” sends us back through the few minutes of film that pre¬ 
cede the gap. Armed with our life experience and common sense, 
we seek answers. 

First, Kramer’s a workaholic, but many workaholics make 
excellent breakfasts at five a.m. before anyone else is up. More, he’s 
never contributed to his family’s domestic life, but many men don’t 
and their wives remain loyal, respecting their husbands’ efforts to 
provide income. Our deeper insight is this: Kramer is a child. He’s 
a spoiled-rotten brat whose mother always made breakfast for him. 
Later her role was filled by girlfriends and waitresses. Now he’s 
turned his wife into a waitress/mother. Women have spoiled Kramer 
all his life and he’s been only too happy to let them. Joanna Kramer 
was, in essence, raising two children, and overwhelmed by the 
impossibility of a mature relationship, she abandoned the mar¬ 
riage. What’s more, we feel she was right to do it. New direction: 
Kramer’s growth into manhood. 

The Climax of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK propels the 
longest rush for insight I know. As Darth Vader (David Prowse/ 
James Earl Jones) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) fight to the 
death with light sabers, Vader steps back and says: “You can’t kill 
me, Luke, I’m your father.” The word “father” explodes one of the 
most famous gaps in film history and hurls the audience back 
through two whole films separated by three years. Instantly we 
grasp why Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) was so worried 
about what would happen if Darth and Luke ever met face to face. 
We know why Yoda (voice of Frank Oz) was so desperate to teach 
Luke command of the Force. We realize why Luke's had so many 
close escapes: His father has been secretly protecting him. Two 
films that made perfect sense to this moment now have a new, 
deeper layer of meaning. New direction: RETURN OF THE JEDI. 

CHINATOWN: Before the Act Two Climax we believe that 
Mulwray was murdered either for financial gain or in a jealous 
rage. But when Evelyn says: “She’s my sister and my daughter . . .” 
the gap splits with a shock. To understand her words, we race back 


through the film and gain a powerful set of insights: incest 
between father and daughter, the real motivation for the murder, 
and the identity of the killer. New direction: the corkscrew twists of 
Act Three. 

The Question of Self-Expression 

A storyteller puts a friendly arm around the audience, saying: “Let 
me show you something.” He takes us to a scene, such as the one 
in CHINATOWN, and says: “Watch Gittes drive to Santa Monica, 
intent on arresting Evelyn. When he knocks on her door, do you 
think he’ll be invited in? Watch this. Now the beautiful Evelyn 
comes downstairs, happy to see him. Think he’ll soften and let her 
off the hook? Watch this. Next she fights to protect her secret. 
Think she’ll keep it? Watch this. As he listens to her confession, 
will he help her or arrest her? Watch this.” 

The storyteller leads us into expectation, makes us think we 
understand, then cracks open reality, creating surprise and 
curiosity, sending us back through his story again and again. On 
each trip back, we gain deeper and deeper insight into the natures 
of his characters and their world—a sudden awareness of the inef¬ 
fable truths that lie hidden beneath the film’s images. He then 
takes his story in a new direction in an ever-escalating progression 
of such moments. 

To tell story is to make a promise: If you give me your concen¬ 
tration, I’ll give you surprise followed by the pleasure of discov¬ 
ering life, its pains and joys, at levels and in directions you have 
never imagined. And most important, this must be done with such 
seeming ease and naturalness that we lead the audience to these 
discoveries as if spontaneously. The effect of a beautifully turned 
moment is that filmgoers experience a rush of knowledge as if they 
did it for themselves. In a sense they did. Insight is the audience's 
reward for paying attention, and a beautifully designed story 
delivers this pleasure scene after scene after scene. 

Yet, if we were to ask writers how they express themselves, 
more often than not they’ll reply: “With my words. My descriptions 


of the world and the dialogue I create for my characters. I’m a 
writer. I express myself in language.” But language is merely our 
text. First, last, and always, self-expression occurs in the flood of 
insight that pours out of a Turning Point. Here the writer opens 
his arms to the world, saying: “This is my vision of life, of the 
nature of the human beings that inhabit my world. This is what I 
think happens to people in these circumstances for these reasons. 
My ideas, my emotions. Me.” Our most powerful means of self- 
expression is the unique way we turn the story. 

Then come words. We apply our literary talent with vividness 
and skill, so that when a beautifully written scene is acted, the audi¬ 
ence is carried willingly and pleasurably through our Turning 
Points. As important as language is, however, it’s only the surface 
by which we capture the reader to lead him to the inner life of the 
story. Language is a tool for self-expression and must never 
become a decorative end of its own. 

Imagine now the difficulties of designing a story so that thirty, 
forty, fifty times over, scenes turn in minor, moderate, or major 
ways, each expressing an aspect of our vision. This is why weak sto¬ 
rytelling resorts to substituting information for insight. Why many 
writers choose to explain their meanings out of the mouths of their 
characters, or worse, in voice-over narration. Such writing is always 
inadequate. It forces characters to a phony, self-conscious knowl¬ 
edge rarely found in actuality. More important, even exquisite, per¬ 
ceptive prose cannot substitute for the global insight that floods the 
mind when we match our life experiences against an artist's well- 
placed setup. 


To express our vision scene by scene we crack open the surface of 
our fictional reality and send the audience back to gain insight. 
These insights, therefore, must be shaped into Setups and Payoffs. 
To set up means to layer in knowledge; to pay off means to close 
the gap by delivering that knowledge to the audience. When the 
gap between expectation and result propels the audience back 


through the story seeking answers, it can only find them if the 
writer has prepared or planted these insights in the work. 

CHINATOWN: When Evelyn Mulwray says: “She's my sister 
and my daughter,” we instantly remember a scene between her 
father and Gittes in which the detective asks Noah Cross what he 
and his son-in-law were arguing about the day before Mulwray was 
murdered. Cross replies, “My daughter.” The first time we hear 
this, we think he means Evelyn. In a flash, we now realize he 
meant Katherine, his daughter by his daughter. Cross said it 
knowing that Gittes would draw the wrong conclusion, and, by 
implication, would suspect Evelyn of the murder he committed. 

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK: When Darth Vader reveals that 
he's Luke's father, we rush back to the scenes in which Ben Kenobi 
and Yoda are greatly troubled over Luke’s command of the Force, 
fearing, we presume, for the young man's safety. We now realize 
that Luke’s mentors were actually concerned for his soul, dreading 
that his father would seduce him to the “dark side.” 

SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS: John L. Sullivan is a film director 
with a string of hits such as So Long , Sarong and Ants in Your 
Pants of 1939. Conscience-stricken by the appalling condition of 
the world, Sullivan determines that his next film must have 
“social significance.” Angry studio bosses point out that he's 
from Hollywood and therefore doesn’t know anything about 
“social significance.” 

So Sullivan decides to do research. He trudges off into 
America, followed by an air-conditioned travel van, equipped with 
his butler, cook, secretary, girlfriend, and a press agent intent on 
turning Sullivan’s lunatic adventure into a publicity stunt. Then, in 
a case of mistaken identity, Sullivan’s thrown on a chain gang in 
the swamps of Louisiana. Suddenly he’s up to his nostrils in “social 
significance” without a dime to call his agent. 

One evening Sullivan hears uproarious laughter coming from a 
building in the prison compound and discovers a makeshift movie 
theatre filled with his fellow prisoners laughing themselves help¬ 
less at a Mickey Mouse cartoon. His face drops as he realizes that 
these men do not need “social significance” from him. They have 


more than enough in their lives already. What they need is what he 
does best—good light entertainment. 

With this brilliant reversal, we're swept back through the film 
coming to Sullivan's insight . . . and much more. As we gather in 
all the scenes that satirize Hollywood aristocracy, we realize that 
commercial films that presume to instruct society on how to solve 
its shortcomings are certain to be false. For, with few exceptions, 
most filmmakers, like Sullivan, are not interested in the suffering 
poor as much as the picturesque poor. 

Setups must be handled with great care. They must be planted 
in such a way that when the audience first sees them, they have 
one meaning, but with a rush of insight, they take on a second, 
more important meaning. It’s possible, in fact, that a single setup 
may have meanings hidden to a third or fourth level. 

CHINATOWN: When we meet Noah Cross, he's a murder sus¬ 
pect, but he’s also a father worried about his daughter. When Evelyn 
reveals their incest, we then realize Cross’s true concern is Katherine. 
In Act Three, when Cross uses his wealth to block Gittes and capture 
Katherine, we realize that under Cross’s previous scenes lurked a 
third level, a madness driven by the virtually omnipotent power to 
escape justice while committing murder. In the final scene, when 
Cross draws Katherine into the shadows of Chinatown, we realize 
that festering under all this grotesque corruption has been Cross’s 
lust to have incest with the offspring of his own incest. 

Setups must be planted firmly enough so that when the audi¬ 
ence’s mind hurls back, they’re remembered. If setups are too 
subtle, the audience will miss the point. If too heavy-handed, the 
audience will see the Turning Point coming a mile away. Turning 
Points fail when we overprepare the obvious and underprepare the 

Additionally, the firmness of the setup must be adjusted to the 
target audience. We set up more prominently for youth audiences, 
because they're not as story literate as middle-aged filmgoers. 
Bergman, for example, is difficult for the young—not because they 
couldn’t grasp his ideas if they were explained, but because 
Bergman never explains. He dramatizes his ideas subtly, using 


setups intended for the well-educated, socially experienced, and 
psychologically sophisticated. 

Once the setup closes the gap, that payoff will, in all proba¬ 
bility, become yet another setup for payoffs ahead. 

CHINATOWN: When Evelyn reveals her child by incest, she 
repeatedly warns Gittes that her father is dangerous, that Gittes 
doesn’t know what he’s dealing with. We then realize that Cross 
killed Mulwray in a fight for possession of the child. This Act Two 
payoff sets up an Act Three Climax in which Gittes fails to appre¬ 
hend Cross, Evelyn is killed, and the father/grandfather pulls the 
terrified Katherine into the darkness. 

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK: When Darth Vader reveals 
himself to Luke, this pays off multiple setups strung back through 
two films. In an instant, however, this also becomes the setup for 
Luke’s next action. What will the young hero do? He chooses to try 
to kill his father, but Darth Vader cuts off his son’s hand—a payoff 
to set up the next action. Now defeated, what will Luke do? He 
hurls himself out of the sky city, trying to commit an honorable 
suicide—a payoff to set up the next action. Will he die? No, he’s 
rescued virtually in mid-air by his friends. This stroke of luck pays 
off the suicide and becomes the setup for a third film to resolve the 
conflict between father and son. 

SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS: When Sullivan realizes what a preten¬ 
tious fool he’s been, this pays off all the arrogant folly underlying 
the previous acts. It in turn sets up his next action. How will he 
escape the chain gang? His discovery of who he really is puts his 
head back in the Hollywood groove. He realizes, like any Holly¬ 
wood pro, that the way out of prison, indeed out of any trouble, is 
publicity. Sullivan confesses to a murder he didn’t commit to get 
back into court and the limelight of the press so the studio bosses 
and their powerhouse attorneys can rescue him. This payoff sets up 
the Resolution scene where we see Sullivan back in the Hollywood 
harness, making the fluffy entertainment films he has always 
made—but now he knows why. 

The juggling act of setting up, paying off, setting up again and 
paying off again often sparks our most creative flashes. 


Suppose you were developing a story about orphaned brothers, 
Mark and Michael, who are raised from infancy in a brutal institu¬ 
tion. The brothers are inseparable, protecting and supporting each 
other through the years. Then they escape the orphanage. Now on the 
streets they struggle to survive while always defending each other. 
Mark and Michael love each other, and you love them. But you have a 
problem: no story. This is a portrait entitled: “Two brothers against 
the world.” The only variation in the repetitious demonstration of 
their fraternal loyalty is its location. Nothing essential changes. 

But, as you stare at your open-ended chain-link of episodes, you 
have a crazy idea: “What if Mark stabbed Michael in the back? 
Ripped him off, took his money, his girl. . Now you’re pacing, 
arguing: “That’s stupid! They love each other. Fought the world 
together. Makes no sense! Still, it’d be great. Forget it. But it’d be a 
hell of a scene. Cut it out. It’s not logical!” 

Then the light goes on: “I could make it logical. I could go back 
through everything and layer that in. Two brothers against the 
world? What about Cain and Abel? Sibling rivalry? I could rewrite 
from the opening and under every scene slip a bitter taste of envy 
in Mark, superiority and arrogance in Michael. All quietly there 
behind the sweet loyalty. If I do it well, when Mark betrays Mike, 
the audience will glimpse that repressed jealousy in Mark and it’ll 
all make sense.” 

Now your characters aren’t repeating but growing. Perhaps you 
realize you’re finally expressing what you really feel toward your 
own brother and couldn’t admit. Still, it’s not over. Suddenly, out of 
the blue, a second thought: “If Mark betrays Mike, that could be the 
Penultimate Climax. And that Climax could set up a last act Story 
Climax in which Mike takes his revenge and . . .” You’ve found 
your story because you’ve allowed yourself to think the unthink¬ 
able. In storytelling, logic is retroactive. 

In story, unlike life, you can always go back and fix it. You can 
set up what may seem absurd and make it rational. Reasoning is 
secondary and postcreativity. Primary and preconditional to every¬ 
thing else is imagination—the willingness to think any crazy idea, 
to let images that may or may not make sense find their way to you. 


Nine out of ten will be useless. Yet one illogical idea may put but¬ 
terflies in your belly, a flutter that’s telling you something won¬ 
derful is hidden in this mad notion. In an intuitive flash you see 
the connection and realize you can go back and make it make 
sense. Logic is child’s play. Imagination takes you to the screen. 


We do not move the emotions of an audience by putting glistening 
tears in a character’s eyes, by writing exuberant dialogue so an 
actor can recite his joy, by describing an erotic embrace, or by 
calling for angry music. Rather, we render the precise experience 
necessary to cause an emotion, then take the audience through that 
experience. For Turning Points not only deliver insight, they create 
the dynamics of emotion. 

The understanding of how we create the audience’s emotional 
experience begins with the realization that there are only two emo¬ 
tions—pleasure and pain. Each has its variations: joy, love, happi¬ 
ness, rapture, fun, ecstasy, thrill, bliss, and many others on one 
hand, and anguish, dread, anxiety, terror, grief, humiliation, 
malaise, misery, stress, remorse, and many others on the other 
hand. But at heart life gives us only one or the other. 

As audience, we experience an emotion when the telling takes 
us through a transition of values. First, we must empathize with 
the character. Second, we must know what the character wants and 
want the character to have it. Third, we must understand the values 
at stake in the character’s life. Within these conditions, a change in 
values moves our emotions. 

Suppose a comedy were to begin with a poverty-stricken protag¬ 
onist at the negative in terms of the value of wealth. Then over 
scene, sequence, or act, his life undergoes change to the positive, a 
transition from poor to rich. As the audience watches this character 
move toward his desire, the transition from less to more will lift it 
into a positive emotional experience. 

As soon as this plateau is reached, however, emotion quickly 
dissipates. An emotion is a relatively short-term, energetic experi- 


ence that peaks and burns and is over. Now the audience is 
thinking: “Terrific. He’s rich. What happens next?” 

Next, the story must turn in a new direction to shape a transi¬ 
tion from positive to negative that’s deeper than his previous pen¬ 
niless state. Perhaps the protagonist falls from riches into debt to 
the mafia, far worse than poverty. As this transition moves from 
more to less than nothing, the audience will have a negative emo¬ 
tional response. However, once the protagonist owes all to a loan 
shark, the audience’s emotion wanes as it thinks: “Bad move. He 
blew the money and owes the mob. What’s going to happen next?” 

Now the story must turn in yet another new direction. Perhaps 
he escapes his debt by impersonating the Don and taking over the 
mob. As the telling makes the transition from the doubly negative 
to the ironically positive, the audience has an even stronger positive 
emotion. Story must create these dynamic alternations between 
positive and negative emotion in order to obey the Law of Dimin¬ 
ishing Returns. 

The Law of Diminishing Returns, true in life as well as in story, 
is this: The more often we experience something , the less effect it has. 
Emotional experience, in other words, cannot be repeated back-to- 
back with effect. The first ice cream cone tastes great; the second 
isn’t bad; the third makes you sick. The first time we experience an 
emotion or sensation it has its full effect. If we try to repeat this 
experience immediately, it has half or less than half of its full 
effect. If we go straight to the same emotion for the third time, it 
not only doesn’t have the original effect, it delivers the opposite 

Suppose a story contains three tragic scenes contiguously. 
What would be the effect? In the first, we shed tears; in the second, 
we sniffle; in the third, we laugh . . . loudly. Not because the third 
scene isn’t sad—it may be the saddest of the three—but because 
the previous two have drained us of grief and we find it insensitive, 
if not ludicrous, of the storyteller to expect us to cry yet again. The 
repetition of “serious” emotion is, in fact, a favorite comic device. 

Although comedy may seem the exception to this principle in 
that we often seem to laugh repeatedly, it’s not. Laughter is not an 


emotion. Joy is an emotion. Laughter is a criticism we hurl at 
something we find ridiculous or outrageous. It may occur inside 
any emotion, from terror to love. Nor do we laugh without relief. A 
joke has two parts: setup and punch. The setup raises the tension 
in the audience, if only for a moment, through danger, sex, the 
scatological—a host of taboos—then the punch explodes laughter. 
This is the secret to comic timing: When is the setup ripe to hit the 
punchline or gag? The comic senses this intuitively, but one thing 
he learns objectively is that he can’t deliver punch, punch, punch 
without wearing out his welcome. 

There is, however, one exception: a story can go from positive 
to positive or negative to negative, if the contrast between these 
events is so great, in retrospect the first takes on shades of its oppo¬ 
site. Consider these two events: Lovers argue and break up. Nega¬ 
tive. Next, one kills the other. The second turn is so powerfully 
negative that the argument begins to seem positive. In the light of 
the murder, the audience will look back at the breakup and think: 
“At least they were talking then." 

If the contrast between emotional charges is great, events can 
move from positive to positive without sentimentality, or from neg¬ 
ative to negative without forced seriousness. However, if the pro¬ 
gression changes only by degree, as it normally would, then a 
repeated emotion has half its expected effect, and if repeated yet 
again, the charge unfortunately reverses itself. 

The Law of Diminishing Returns is true of everything in life, 
except sex, which seems endlessly repeatable with effect. 

Once a transition of value creates an emotion, feeling comes into 
play. Although they’re often mistaken for each other, feeling is not 
emotion. Emotion is a short-term experience that peaks and bums 
rapidly. Feeling is a long-term, pervasive, sentient background that 
colors whole days, weeks, even years of our lives. Indeed, a specific 
feeling often dominates a personality. Each of the core emotions in 
life—pleasure and pain—has many variations. So which particular 
negative or positive emotion will we experience? The answer is found 
in the feeling that surrounds it. For, like adding pigment to a pencil 
sketch or an orchestra to a melody, feeling makes emotion specific. 


Suppose a man is feeling good about life, his relationships and 
career both going well. Then he receives a message that his lover 
has died. He’ll grieve but in time recover and go on with life. On 
the other hand, suppose his days are dark, stressed, and depressed 
by everything he tries. Then suddenly he receives a message that 
his lover has died. Well. . .he might join her. 

In film, feeling is known as mood. Mood is created in the 
film’s text: the quality of light and color, tempo of action and 
editing, casting, style of dialogue, production design, and musical 
score. The sum of all these textural qualities creates a particular 
mood. In general, mood, like setups, is a form of foreshadowing, a 
way of preparing or shaping the audience’s anticipations. Moment 
by moment, however, while the dynamic of the scene determines 
whether the emotion it causes is positive or negative, the mood 
makes this emotion specific. 

This sketch, for example, is designed to create a positive emo¬ 
tion: Estranged lovers haven’t spoken to each other for over a year. 
Without her, his life’s taken a dangerous turn. Desperate and 
broke, he comes to her, hoping to borrow money. The scene begins 
at the negative in two values: his survival and their love. 

He knocks on her door. She sees him on the step and refuses 
to let him in. He makes a noise loud enough to disturb the neigh¬ 
bors, hoping to embarrass her into letting him in. She picks up a 
phone and threatens to call the police. He calls her bluff, shouting 
through the door that he is in such deep trouble prison may be the 
only safe place for him. She shouts back that that's fine with her. 

Frightened and angry, he smashes through the door. But from 
the look on her face, he realizes this is no way to borrow money 
from anybody. He frantically explains that loan sharks are threat¬ 
ening to break his arms and his legs. Rather than sympathizing, 
she laughs and tells him she hopes they break his head as well. He 
bursts into tears and crawls to her, begging. The mad look on his 
face frightens her and she takes a gun out of a drawer to scare him 
off. He laughs, saying he remembers giving her the gun a year ago 
and the firing pin was broken. She laughs, saying she had it fixed 
and blows up the lamp next to him to prove it. 


He grabs her wrist and they fall to floor wrestling for the gun, 
rolling over each other, until suddenly an emotion they haven’t felt 
for over a year ignites and they start to make love on the floor next to 
the smashed lamp and shattered door. A little voice in his head says, 
“This could work,” but then a gap opens between him .. . and his 
body. That, she thinks, smiling, is his real problem. Moved to pity 
and affection, she decides to take him back into her life. The scene 
ends on the positive: He has her help to survive, their love is restored. 

If the audience empathizes with these characters, the move¬ 
ment from the negative to the positive will create a positive emo¬ 
tion. But which? There are many. 

Suppose the writer calls for a summer’s day, brightly colored 
flowers in window boxes, blossoms on the trees. The producer casts 
Jim Carrey and Mira Sorvino. The director composes them in head- 
to-foot shots. Together they’ve created a comic mood. Comedy likes 
bright light and color. Comics need full shots because they act with 
their whole bodies. Carrey and Sorvino are brilliant zanies. The 
audience will feel tingling fear spiced with laughter as Carrey bangs 
through the door, as Sorvino pulls a gun, as these two try to make 
love. Then a burst of joy when she takes him back. 

But suppose the scene were set in the dead of night, the house 
spackled with shadows of trees blowing in the wind, moonlight, 
street light. The director shoots tight, canted angles and orders the 
lab to mute the colors. The producer casts Michael Madsen and 
Linda Fiorentino. Without changing a beat, the scene is now 
drenched in a Thriller mood. Our hearts will be in our throats as we 
fear that one of these two isn’t getting out of this alive. Imagine 
Madsen bulling his way in, Fiorentino grabbing a gun, those two 
fighting for it. When they’re finally in each other’s arms, we’ll 
breathe a sigh of relief. 

The arc of the scene, sequence, or act determines the basic 
emotion. Mood makes it specific. But mood will not substitute for 
emotion. When we want mood experiences, we go to concerts or 
museums. When we want meaningful emotional experience, we go 
to the storyteller. It does the writer no good to write an exposition- 
filled scene in which nothing changes, then set it in a garden at 


sundown, thinking that a golden mood will carry the day. All the 
writer has done is dump weak writing on the shoulders of the 
director and cast. Undramatized exposition is boring in any light. 
Film is not about decorative photography. 


A Turning Point is centered in the choice a character makes under 
pressure to take one action or another in the pursuit of desire. 
Human nature dictates that each of us will always choose the “good” 
or the “right” as we perceive the “good” or the “right” It is impossible 
to do otherwise. Therefore, if a character is put into a situation 
where he must choose between a clear good versus a clear evil, or 
right versus wrong, the audience, understanding the character's 
point of view, will know in advance how the character will choose. 

The choice between good and evil or between right 

and wrong is no choice at all. 

Imagine Attila, King of the Huns poised on the borders of fifth- 
century Europe, surveying his hordes and asking himself: “Should 
I invade, murder, rape, plunder, burn, and lay waste ... or should I 
go home?” For Attila this is no choice at all. He must invade, slay, 
plunder, and lay waste. He didn’t lead tens of thousands of war¬ 
riors across two continents to turn around when he finally came 
within sight of the prize. In the eyes of his victims, however, his is 
an evil decision. But that’s their point of view. For Attila his choice 
is not only the right thing to do, but probably the moral thing to do. 
No doubt, like many of history’s great tyrants, he felt he was on a 
holy mission. 

Or, closer to home: A thief bludgeons a victim on the street for 
the five dollars in her purse. He may know this isn’t the moral thing 
to do, but moral/immoral, right/wrong, legal/illegal often have little 
to do with one another. He may instantly regret what he's done. But 
at the moment of murder, front the thiefs point of view, his arm won’t 
move until he’s convinced himself that this is the right choice. 


If we do not understand that much about human nature—that 
a human being is only capable of acting toward the right or the 
good as he has come to believe it or rationalize it—then we under¬ 
stand very little. Good/evil, right/wrong choices are dramatically 
obvious and trivial. 

True choice is dilemma. It occurs in two situations. First, a choice 
between irreconcilable goods: From the character’s view two things 
are desirable, he wants both, but circumstances are forcing him to 
choose only one. Second, a choice between the lesser of two evils : From 
the character’s view two things are undesirable, he wants neither, 
but circumstances are forcing him to choose one. How a character 
chooses in a true dilemma is a powerful expression of his 
humanity and of the world in which he lives. 

Writers since Homer have understood the principle of 
dilemma, and realized that the story of a two-sided relationship 
cannot be sustained, that the simple conflict between Character A 
and Character B cannot be told to satisfaction. 

Positive / Neutral / Negative 

(A)-► --(B) 

+ /- 

A two-sided conflict is not dilemma but vacillation between the 
positive and the negative. “She loves me/she loves me not, she 
loves me/she loves not,” for example, swings back and forth 
between good and bad, and presents insoluble story problems. It 
isn’t only tediously repetitious, but it has no ending. 

If we try to climax this pattern on the positive with the protago¬ 
nist believing “She loves me,” the audience leaves thinking, “Wait 
till tomorrow when she’ll love you not again.” Or if on the negative 
“She loves me not,” the audience exits thinking, "She’ll come back. 
She always did.” Even if we kill the loved one, it’s not a true ending 
because the protagonist is left wondering, “She loved me? She 
loved me not?” and the audience exits groping for a point that was 
never made. 


For example, here are two stories: one that wavers back and 
forth between inward states of pleasure and pain and one of inner 
dilemma. Compare BETTY BLUE with THE RED DESERT. In the 
former, Betty (Beatrice Dalle) slides from obsession to madness to 
catatonia. She has impulses but never makes a true decision. In the 
later Giuliana (Monica Vitti) faces profound dilemmas: retreat into 
comforting fantasies versus making meaning out of a harsh reality, 
madness versus pain. BETTY BLUE’S “mock-minimalism" is an 
over two-hour long snapshot of a helpless victim of schizophrenia 
that mistakes suffering for drama. ILDESERTOROSSOisa mini¬ 
malist masterpiece that delineates a human being grappling with 
the terrifying contradictions within her nature. 

To construct and create genuine choice, we must frame a three- 
sided situation. As in life, meaningful decisions are triangular. 

+ /- 

+ /- 

The moment we add C we generate ample material to avoid rep¬ 
etition. First, to the three possible relationships between A and B: 
positive/negative/neutral, love/hate/indifference, for example, we 
add the same three between A and C and between B and C. This 
gives us nine possibilities. Then we may join A and B against C; A 


and C against B; B and C against A. Or put them all in love or all in 
hate or all indifferent. By adding a third comer, the triangle breeds 
over twenty variations, more than enough material to progress 
without repetition. A fourth element would produce compound 
interlocking triangles, a virtual infinitude of changing relationships. 

What’s more, triangular design brings closure. If a telling is 
two-sided so that A vacillates between B and no-B, the ending is 
open. But if choice is three-sided so that A is caught between B and 
C, A’s choice of one or the other closes the ending with satisfac¬ 
tion. Whether B and C represent the lesser of two evils or irrecon¬ 
cilable goods, the protagonist can’t have both. A price must be paid. 
One must be risked or lost to gain the other. If, for example, A 
relinquishes C to have B, the audience feels a true choice has been 
taken. C has been sacrificed, and this irreversible change ends the 

The most compelling dilemmas often combine the choice of 
irreconcilable goods with the lesser of two evils. In the Supernatural 
Romance DONA FLOR AND HER TWO HUSBANDS, for example, 
Dona (Sonia Braga) faces a choice between a new husband who’s 
warm, secure, faithful, but dull versus an ex-husband who’s sexy, 
exciting, but dead, yet his ghost appears to her in private as flesh 
and blood and sexually insatiable as ever. Is she hallucinating or 
not? What's the widow to do? She’s caught in the dilemma between 
a boringly pleasant life of normality versus a bizarre, perhaps mad, 
life of emotional fulfillment. She makes the wise decision: She 
takes both. 

An original work poses choices between unique but irreconcil¬ 
able desires: It may be between two persons, a person and a 
lifestyle, two lifestyles, two ideals, two aspects of the innermost 
self—between any conflicting desires at any level of conflict, real or 
imagined, the writer may devise. But the principle is universal: 
Choice must not be doubt but dilemma, not between right/wrong 
or good/evil, but between either positive desires or negative desires 
of equal weight and value. 

, ^ u ,, 



Just as a personality structure can be disclosed through psycho¬ 
analysis, the shape of a scene’s inner life can be uncovered through 
a similar inquiry. If we ask the right questions, a scene that speeds 
past in the reading and hides its flaws brakes into ultra-slow 
motion, opens up, and reveals its secrets. 

If you feel a scene plays, don’t fix what works. But often a first 
draft falls flat or seems forced. Our tendency then is to rewrite dia¬ 
logue over and over, hoping that by paraphrasing speeches we can 
bring it to life . . . until we hit a dead end. For the problem won’t 
be in the scene’s activity but in its action; not in how characters 
are talking or behaving on the surface, but in what they’re doing 
behind their masks. Beats build scenes, and the flaws of an ill- 
designed scene are in these exchanges of behavior. To find out 
why a scene fails, the whole must be broken into its parts. An 
analysis begins, therefore, by separating the scene’s text from its 

Text means the sensory surface of a work of art. In film it's the 
images onscreen and the soundtrack of dialogue, music, and sound 
effects. What we see. What we hear. What people say. What people 
do. Subtext is the life under that surface—thoughts and feelings 
both known and unknown, hidden by behavior. 

Nothing is what it seems. This principle calls for the screen¬ 
writer’s constant awareness of the duplicity of life, his recognition 



that everything exists on at least two levels, and that, therefore, he 
must write a simultaneous duality: First, he must create a verbal 
description of the sensory surface of life, sight and sound, activity 
and talk. Second, he must create the inner world of conscious and 
unconscious desire, action and reaction, impulse and id, genetic 
and experiential imperatives. As in reality, so in fiction: He must 
veil the truth with a living mask, the actual thoughts and feelings of 
characters behind their saying and doing. 

An old Hollywood expression goes: “If the scene is about what 
the scene is about, you're in deep shit.” It means writing “on the 
nose,” writing dialogue and activity in which a character’s deepest 
thoughts and feelings are expressed by what the character says and 
does—writing the subtext directly into the text. 

Writing this, for example: Two attractive people sit opposite 
each other at a candlelit table, the light glinting off the crystal wine¬ 
glasses and the dewy eyes of the lovers. Soft breezes billow the cur¬ 
tains. A Chopin nocturne plays in the background. The lovers reach 
across the table, touch hands, look longingly in each others' eyes, 
say, “I love you, I love you" . . . and actually mean it. This is an 
unactable scene arid will die like a rat in the road. 

Actors are not marionettes to mime gestures and mouth words. 
They’re artists who create with material from the subtext, not the 
text. An actor brings a character to life from the inside out, from 
unspoken, even unconscious thoughts and feelings out to a surface 
of behavior. The actors will say and do whatever the scene requires, 
but they find their sources for creation in the inner life. The scene 
above is unactable because it has no inner life, no subtext. It’s 
unactable because there’s nothing to act. 

When we reflect on our filmgoing, we realize we’ve witnessed 
the phenomenon of subtext all our lives. The screen isn’t opaque 
but transparent. When we look up at the screen, don’t we have the 
impression that we’re reading minds and feelings? We constantly 
say to ourselves, “I know what that character’s really thinking and 
feeling. I know what’s going on inside her better than she does, 
and I know it better than the guy she’s talking to because he’s busy 
with his own agenda.” 


In life our eyes tend to stop at the surface. We’re so consumed 
by our own needs, conflicts, and daydreams that we rarely manage 
to take a step back and coolly observe what’s going on inside other 
human beings. Occasionally we put a frame around a couple in the 
corner of a coffee shop and create a movie moment as we look 
through their smiles to the boredom beneath or through the pain 
in their eyes to the hope they have for each other. But rarely and 
only for a moment. In the ritual of story, however, we continuously 
see through the faces and activities of characters to depths of the 
unspoken, the unaware. 

This is why we go to the storyteller, the guide who takes us 
beyond what seems to what is . . . at all levels and not for a mere 
moment but to the end of the line. The storyteller gives us the plea¬ 
sure that life denies, the pleasure of sitting in the dark ritual of 
story, looking through the face of life to the heart of what is felt and 
thought beneath what’s said and done. 

How then might we write a love scene? Let two people change 
the tire on a car. Let the scene be a virtual textbook on how to fix a 
flat. Let all dialogue and action be about jack, wrench, hubcap, and 
lug nuts: “Hand me that, would ya?” “Watch out.” “Don’t get dirty.” 
“Let me . . . whoops.” The actors will interpret the real action of the 
scene, so leave room for them to bring romance to life wholly from 
the inside. As their eyes meet and sparks fly, we’ll know what’s hap¬ 
pening because it’s in the unspoken thoughts and emotions of the 
actors. As we see through the surface, we’ll lean back with a knowing 
smile: “Look what happened. They’re not just changing the tire on a 
car. He thinks she’s hot and she knows it. Boy has met girl.” 

In other words, write as these things happen in life. For if we 
give that candlelit scene to fine actors, they’ll smell the lie, refuse to 
act it, and walk off until the scene is cut or rewritten with an 
actable subtext. If the cast lacks the clout to demand a rewrite, then 
they’ll do this: They will put a subtext in the scene whether or not it 
has anything to do with the story. Good actors will not step in front 
of a camera without their subtext. 

For example, an actor forced to do the candlelit scene might 
attack it like this: “Why have these people gone out of their way to 


create this movie scene? What’s with the candlelight, soft music, 
billowing curtains? Why don’t they just take their pasta to the TV 
set like normal people? What's wrong with this relationship?” 
Because isn’t that life? When do the candles come out? When 
everything’s fine? No. When everything’s fine we take our pasta to 
the TV set like normal people. So from that insight the actor will 
create a subtext. Now as we watch, we think: “He says he loves her 
and maybe he does, but look, he’s scared he’s losing her. He’s des¬ 
perate.” Or from another subtext: “He says he loves her, but look, 
he’s setting her up for bad news. He’s getting ready to walk out.” 

The scene is not about what the scene seems to be about. It’s 
about something else. And it’s that something else—trying to 
regain her affection or softening her up for the breakup—that will 
make the scene work. There’s always a subtext, an inner life that 
contrasts with or contradicts the text. Given this, the actor will 
create a multilayered work that allows us to see through the text to 
the truth that vibrates behind the eyes, voice, and gestures of life. 

This principle does not mean that people are insincere. It’s a com- 
monsense recognition that we all wear a public mask. We say and do 
what we feel we should, while we think and feel something else alto¬ 
gether. As we must. We realize we can’t go around saying and doing 
what we’re actually thinking and feeling. If we all did that, life would 
be a lunatic asylum. Indeed, that’s how you know you're talking to a 
lunatic. Lunatics are those poor souls who have lost their inner com¬ 
munication and so they allow themselves to say and do exactly what 
they are thinking and feeling and that’s why they're mad. 

In truth, it’s virtually impossible for anyone, even the insane, to 
fully express what’s going on inside. No matter how much we wish 
to manifest our deepest feelings, they elude us. We never fully 
express the truth, for in fact we rarely know it. Consider the situa¬ 
tion in which we are desperate to express our truest thoughts and 
feelings—psychoanalysis: A patient lies on a couch, pouring his 
heart out. Wanting to be understood. No holds barred. No intimacy 
too private to reveal. And as he rips terrible thoughts and desires to 
the surface, what does the analyst do? Quietly nods and takes 
notes. And what’s in those notes? What is not being said, the secret, 


unconscious truths that lie behind the patient’s gut-wrenching con¬ 
fession. Nothing is what is seems. No text without a subtext. 

Nor does this mean that we can’t write powerful dialogue in 
which desperate people try to tell the truth. It simply means that 
the most passionate moments must conceal an even deeper level. 

CHINATOWN: Evelyn Mulwray cries out: “She’s my sister and 
my daughter. My father and I . . But what she doesn’t say is: 
“Please help me.” Her anguished confession is in fact a plea for 
help. Subtext: “I didn’t kill my husband; my father did . . . to pos¬ 
sess my child. If you arrest me, he’ll take her. Please help me.” In 
the next beat Gittes says, “Well have to get you out of town.” An 
illogical reply that makes perfect sense. Subtext: “I’ve understood 
everything you’ve told me. I now know your father did it. I love you 
and I’m going to risk my life to save you and your child. Then I’m 
going after the bastard.” All this is underneath the scene, giving us 
truthful behavior without phony “on the nose” dialogue, and what’s 
more, without robbing the audience of the pleasure of insight. 

STAR WARS: When Darth Vader offers Luke the chance to join 
him in running the universe, bringing “order to things,” Luke’s reac¬ 
tion is to attempt suicide. Again not a logical reaction, but one that 
makes perfect sense, for both Luke and the audience read Darth 
Vader’s subtext: Behind “bring order to things” is the unspoken impli¬ 
cation “... and enslave billions.” When Luke attempts to kill himself, 
we read a heroic subtext: “I’ll die before I’d join your evil enterprise.” 

Characters may say and do anything you can imagine. But 
because it’s impossible for any human being to tell or act the com¬ 
plete truth, because at the very least there’s always an unconscious 
dimension, the writer must layer in a subtext. And when the audi¬ 
ence senses that subtext, the scene plays. 

This principle also extends to the first-person novel, theatrical 
soliloquy, and direct-to-camera or voice-over narration. For if char¬ 
acters talk privately to us, that doesn’t mean for a moment that they 
know the truth or are capable of telling it. 

ANNIE HALL: When Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) speaks 
directly to the audience “confessing” his fears and inadequacies, he 
also lies, dissembles, cajoles, exaggerates, and rationalizes, all in a 


self-deceived effort to win us over and convince himself his heart’s 
in the right place. 

Subtext is present even when a character is alone. For if no one 
else is watching us, we are. We wear masks to hide our true selves 
from ourselves. 

Not only do individuals wear masks, but institutions do as well 
and hire public relations experts to keep them in place. Paddy 
Chayefsky’s satire HOSPITAL cuts to the core of that truth. Hos¬ 
pital staffs all wear white and act as if professional, caring, and sci¬ 
entific. But if you’ve ever worked inside a medical institution, you 
know that greed and ego and a touch of madness are invisibly 
there. If you want to die, go to a hospital. 

The constant duality of life is true even for the inanimate. In 
Robert Rossen’s adaptation of Melville’s BILLY BUDD a man-o-war 
rests in tropical waters at night. Uncountable stars gleam above, all 
magnificently reflected in a black, calm sea. A low, full moon trails 
its light from the horizon to the ship’s prow. The limp sails tremble 
in the warm breezes. The cruel master-at-arms, Claggart (Robert 
Ryan) is holding watch. Billy (Terence Stamp) can’t sleep, so he 
comes out on deck, stands at the gunnels with Claggart, and 
remarks on what a beautiful evening it is. Claggart answers, “Yes, 
Billy, yes, but remember, beneath that glittering surface is a uni¬ 
verse of gliding monsters.” Even Mother Nature wears her masks. 


To analyze a scene you must slice into its pattern of behaviors at 
the levels of both text and subtext. Once properly examined, its 
flaws become vividly clear. Below is a five-step process designed to 
make a scene give up its secrets. 

Step One: Define Conflict 

First ask, who drives the scene, motivates it, and makes it happen? 
Any character or force might drive a scene, even an inanimate object 
or act of nature. Then look into both the text and subtext of this char- 


acter or force, and ask: What does he (or it) want? Desire is always 
the key. Phrase this desire (or in the actor's idiom: scene objective) as 
an infinitive: such as, “to do this . . .” or “to get that...” 

Next, look across the scene and ask: What forces of antagonism 
block this desire? Again, these forces may come from any level or com¬ 
bination. After identifying the source of antagonism, ask: What do the 
forces of antagonism want? This too is best expressed as an infinitive: 
“Not to do that. ..” or “To get this instead . . .” If the scene is well 
written, when you compare the set of phrases expressing the desires 
from each side, you'll see that they’re in direct conflict—not tangential. 

Step Two: Note Opening Value 

Identify the value at stake in the scene and note its charge, positive 
or negative, at the opening of the scene. Such as: “Freedom. The 
protagonist is at the negative, a prisoner of his own obsessive ambi¬ 
tion.” Or: “Faith. The protagonist is at the positive, he trusts in God 
to get him out of this situation.” 

Step Three: Break the Scene into Beats 

A beat is an exchange of action/reaction in character behavior. Look 
carefully at the scene's first action on two levels: outwardly, in terms 
of what the character seems to be doing, and, more important, look 
beneath the surface to what he is actually doing. Name this sub- 
textural action with an active gerund phrase, such as “Begging." Try 
to find phrases that not only indicate action but touch the feelings of 
the character. “Pleading” for example, suggests a character acting 
with a sense of formality, whereas “Groveling at her feet” conveys a 
desperate servility. 

The phrases that express the action in the subtext do not 
describe character activity in literal terms; they go deeper to name 
the character’s essential action with emotive connotations. 

Now look across the scene to see what reaction that action 
brought, and describe that reaction with an active gerund phrase. 
For example, “Ignoring the plea.” 


This exchange of action and reaction is a beat. As long as it con¬ 
tinues, Character A is “Groveling at her feet” but Character B is 
“Ignoring the plea,” it’s one beat. Even if their exchange repeats a 
number of times, it's still one and the same beat. A new beat 
doesn’t occur until behavior clearly changes. 

If, for example, Character A's groveling changed to “Threat¬ 
ening to leave her” and in reaction Character B’s ignoring changed 
to “Laughing at the threat,” then the scene’s second beat is “Threat¬ 
ening/Laughing” until A and B’s behavior changes for a third time. 
The analysis then continues through the scene, parsing it into its 

Step Four: Note Closing Value and Compare with 
Opening Value 

At the end of the scene, examine the value-charged condition of the 
character’s situation and describe it in positive/negative terms. 
Compare this note to the one made in Step Two. If the two nota¬ 
tions are the same, the activity between them is a nonevent. Nothing 
has changed, therefore nothing has happened. Exposition may have 
been passed to the audience, but the scene is flat. If, on the other 
hand, the value has undergone change, then the scene has turned. 

Step Five: Survey Beats and Locate Turning Point 

Start from the opening beat and review the gerund phrases 
describing the actions of the characters. As you trace action/reac¬ 
tion to the end of the scene, a shape or pattern should emerge. In a 
well-designed scene, even behaviors that seem helter-skelter will 
have an arc and a purpose. In fact, in such scenes, it’s their careful 
design that makes the beats feel random. Within the arc locate the 
moment when the major gap opens between expectation and 
result, turning the scene to its changed end values. This precise 
moment is the Turning Point. 

An analysis of the design of the following two scenes illustrates 
this technique. 



Casablanca's Mid-Act Climax is played within a unity of time and 
place that puts emphasis on personal conflict and expresses its pri¬ 
mary action verbally. 


Rick Blaine, an antifascist freedom fighter, and lisa Lund, a Norwe¬ 
gian expatriate, meet in Paris in 1940. They fall in love and begin 
an affair. He asks her to marry him, but she avoids an answer. Rick 
is on the Gestapo arrest list. On the eve of the Nazi invasion the 
lovers agree to meet at the train station and escape the city 
together. But lisa doesn’t show. Instead, she sends a note saying 
she loves Rick but will never see him again. 

A year later, Rick runs a cafe in Casablanca. He's become an 
isolate, determinedly neutral, uninvolved in all matters personal 
and political. As he says, “I stick my neck out for no man.” He 
drinks too much and feels as if he has killed his former self. Then 
lisa walks in on the arm of Victor Laszlo, a renowned resistance 
leader. The lovers meet again. Behind their cocktail chat their pas¬ 
sion is palpable. Ilsa leaves with Laszlo, but Rick sits in the dark 
cafe drinking through the night, waiting. 

Hours after midnight she reappears. By now Rick is very 
maudlin and equally drunk. Ilsa tells him guardedly that she 
admires but doesn't love Laszlo. Then, before she can tell him that 
she loves him, Rick, in drunken bitterness, belittles her story by 
comparing it to one told in a brothel. Staring at her with a twisted 
smile he adds insult to injury: “Tell me. Who’d you leave me for? 
Was it Laszlo? Or were there others in between? Or aren’t you the 
kind that tells?” This slur, implying she’s a whore, sends her out 
the door as he collapses in drunken tears. 



The next day lisa and Laszlo go in search of black market exit visas. 
While he tries to make a deal in a cafe, she waits at a linen stall on 
the street. Seeing her alone, Rick approaches. 

Step One: Define Conflict 

Rick initiates and drives the scene. Despite inner conflict over the 
pain he has suffered since she abandoned him in Paris, and the 
anger he suppresses at seeing her with another man, Rick's desire 
is clear: “To win lisa back.” His source of antagonism is equally 
clear: lisa. Her feelings are very complex and clouded by mixed 
emotions of guilt, regret, and duty. She loves Rick passionately and 
would go back to him if she could; but for reasons only she knows, 
she can't. Caught between irreconcilable needs, lisa's desire can be 
phrased as “To keep her affair with Rick in the past and move on 
with her life.” Although entangled with inner conflicts, their 
desires are in direct opposition. 

Step Two: Note Opening Value 

Love governs the scene. Rick’s insulting behavior in their last scene 
turned the value toward the negative, yet it leans to the positive 
because the audience and Rick see a ray of hope. In previous 
scenes lisa has been addressed as “Miss lisa Lund,” a single 
woman traveling with Laszlo. Rick wants to change that. 

Step Three: Break the Scene into Beats 
BEAT * 1 


The sign over the Arab Vendor’s stall reads Lingerie. He shows 
lisa a lace bed sheet. 


Vendor’s action: SELLING. 


You’ll not find a treasure 
like this in all Morocco, 


Just then, Rick walks up behind her. 

Rick’s action: APPROACHING HER. 

Without looking lisa senses his prescence. She feigns interest 
in the lace. 

lisa’s reaction: IGNORING HIM. 

The Vendor holds up a sign reading 700 francs. 


Only seven hundred francs. 

BEAT *2 


You’re being cheated. 

Rick’s action: PROTECTING HER. 

Ilsa takes a second to compose herself. She glances at Rick, 
then with polite formality turns to the Vendor. 


It doesn’t matter, thank you. 

lisa’s reaction: REJECTING RICK’S ADVANCE. 


To win lisa away from Lazio, Rick's first task is to break 
the ice—no easy task given the recriminations and angry 
emotions of their last scene. His warning seems to insult 
the Arab Vendor, who takes no offense, but in the subtext 
it hints at more: her relationship with Lazio. 

BEAT *3 


Ah . . . the lady is a friend of 
Rick’s? For friends of Rick we 
have a small discount. Seven 
hundred francs, did I say? 

(holding up a new 

You can have it for two hun¬ 


I’m sorry I was in no condi¬ 
tion to receive visitors when 
you called on me last night. 

Rick’s action: APOLOGIZING. 


It doesn’t matter. 

lisa’s reaction: REJECTING HIM AGAIN. 


Ah! For special friends of 
Rick’s we have a special 

He replaces the second sign with a third, reading 100 francs. 


Rick’s protective action of the first beat comes naturally; 
the apology in the second beat is more difficult and rare. 
He masks his embarassment by using an excessive for¬ 
mality to make hght of it. Ilsa is unmoved. 

BEAT *4 


Your story left me a little 
confused. Or maybe it was 
the bourbon. 

Rick’s action: EXCUSE MAKING. 


I have some tablecloths, some 
napkins . . . 


Thank you, I’m really not 



(exiting hurriedly) 

Only one moment . . .please . . . 

The Arab vendor enriches the scene in a number of ways. 
He opens it in a comic tone to counterpoint a dark ending; he 
sells lace which adds connotations of weddings and the sexu¬ 
ality of lingerie; most importantly, however, he tries to sell 
Rick to Ilsa. The vendor’s first line declares Rick a treasure. 
To demonstrate the power of Rick, the vendor drops his 


price for “friends of Rick’s. ” Then, hearing something about 
last night, the vendor cuts it even more for “special friends 
of Rick’s. ” 

This is followed by Rick’s second reference to his drinking, 
as he tries to make this take the blame for his insulting 
behavior. Ilsa will hear none of it, and yet she stands and 
waits and it’s safe to assume she isn’t waiting to buy lace. 

BEAT *5 

A small silence as she pretends to examine the lace goods. 


Why’d you come hack? To 
tell me why you ran out on 
me at the railway station? 





lisa’s reaction: OPENING THE DOOR A CRACK. 

After hearing no four times in a row, Rick wants her to 
say yes to anything. So he asks a question that supplies 
its own answer. Her quiet yes opens the door—keeping the 
chain on, perhaps, but indicating she’s willing to talk. 

BEAT *6 


Well, you can tell me now. I’m 
reasonably sober. 




I don’t think I will, Rick. 

lisa’s reaction: ASKING FOR MORE. 

The taciturn Rick insults himself over his drinking for the 
third time. In his tough guy manner, this is begging, and it 
works. Ilsa demurs, opposing him in a mild, polite way, 
yet continuing her lace-buying guise. To paraphrase her 
subtext: “That begging was nice for a change. Could I hear 
a httle more, please?” 

BEAT *7 


Why not? After all, I was 
stuck with the railroad ticket. 
I think I’m entitled to know. 

Rick’s action: GUILT-TRIPPING HER. 


Last night I saw what has 
happened to you. The Rick I 
knew in Paris, I could tell 
him. He‘d understand—but 
the Rick who looked at me 
with such hatred ; . . 

lisa’s reaction: GUILT-TRIPPING HIM BACK. 

These two people have a relationship. Each feels like the 
injured party, and each knows the sensitivity of the other 
so well that they hurt each other with ease. 



(turning to look at 

I’U be leaving Casablanca 
soon. We’ll never see each 
other again. We knew very- 
little about each other when 
we were in love in Paris. If we 
leave it that way, maybe we’ll 
remember those days—not 
Casablanca—not last night— 

lisa’s action: SAYING GOODBYE. 

Rick simply stares at her. 

Rick’s reaction: REFUSING TO REACT. 

In the subtext, lisa's kind, forgiving prose is a clear goodbye. 
No matter how well-mannered, no matter how much her lan¬ 
guage implies her love for Rick, this is the kiss-off: u Let’s be 
friends, let's remember the good times, and forget the bad." 

Rick will have none of this. He reacts by refusing to react; 
for ignoring someone's action is, of course, a reaction. 
Instead he starts the next beat. 

BEAT *8 

BEAT *9 


(voice low and 

Did you run out on me 
because you couldn’t take it? 


Because you knew what it 
would be like, hiding from the 
police, running away all the 

Rick’s action: CALLING HER A COWARD. 


You can believe that if you 
want to. 

lisa’s reaction: CALLING HIM A FOOL. 

Rick’s had a year to figure out why she left him, and his 
best guess is that she was a coward. She, however, dares 
death with Laszlo every day, and so she insults him in 
return with a cool sarcasm that implies: “I don ( t care what 
you think; fools beheve such nonsense; if you want to join 
them, beheve it too. ” 

BEAT *10 


Well, I’m not running away 
anymore. I’m settled now— 
above a saloon, it’s true—but 
walk up a flight. I’ll be 
expecting you. 


Ilsa drops her eyes and turns away from Rick, her face 
shaded by the wide brim of her hat. 

Ilsa’s reaction: HIDING HER REACTION. 


Despite her denials, he senses that her feelings lean the 
other way. He well remembers their sex life in Paris, and 
has seen the cold, aloof Laszlo. So he takes a chance and 
propositions her on the street. Again, it works. Ilsa too 
remembers, and hides her blush under her hat brim. For a 
moment Rick feels she’s within reach, but he can’t resist 
sticking his foot in his mouth. 

BEAT * 1 1 


All the same, some day you’ll 
lie to Laszlo—you’ll be there. 

Rick’s action: CALLING HER A WHORE. 


No, Rick. You see, Victor 
Laszlo is my husband. 

And was . . . 

(pause, coolly) 

. . . even when I knew you in 

lisa’s reaction: CRUSHING HIM WITH THE NEWS. 

With dignity and poise, Ilsa walks away, leaving the stunned 
Rick to stare after her. 

Rick can’t contain the pain caused by lisa’s abandonment 
As in the climax of their previous scene, he strikes out with 
a sexual slur, implying that she’ll betray Laszlo to come 
back to his bed. Called a slut for a second time, Ilsa reaches 
back for the hardest thing she has, and strikes Rick with it 
as hard as she can. Notice, however, that this is a half- 
truth; she doesn’t add that she thought her husband was 


dead. Instead, she leaves a terrible implication in her wake: 
She was a married woman who used Rick in Paris, then 
walked out on him when her husband came back. There¬ 
fore, her love was never real. We know from the subtext 
that the opposite is the truth, but Rick is devastated. 

Step Four: Note Closing Value and Compare 
with Opening Value 

The Central Plot turns sharply from a hopeful positive to a negative 
at a darker depth than Rick could have imagined. For not only does 
lisa make it clear she doesn’t love him now; she implies she never 
did. Her secret marriage turns their Paris romance into a sham and 
Rick into a cuckold. 

Step Five: Survey the Beats and Locate the Turning 

1. Approaching Her/Ignoring Him 

2. Protecting Her/Rejecting Him (and Arab) 

3. Apologizing/Rejecting Him 

4. Excuse Making/Rejecting Him (and Arab) 

5. Getting His Foot in the Door/Opening the Door 

6. Getting Down on His Knees/Asking for More 

7. Guilt-Tripping Her/Guilt-Tripping Him 

8. Saying Goodbye/Refusing to React 

9. Calling Her a Coward/Calling Him a Fool 

10. Sexually Propositioning Her/Hiding Her Reaction 

11. Calling Her a Slut/Destroying His Hope 

The action/reaction pattern builds a rapid progression of beats. 
Each exchange tops the previous beat, placing their love in greater 
and greater risk, demanding more and more willpower and 
capacity to take painful, even cruel actions, but at the same time 
remain in cool control. 

The gap opens in the middle of the eleventh beat, on the revela- 


tion that lisa was married to Laszlo while having an affair with 
Rick. Until this moment, Rick has hopes of winning her over, but 
with this Turning Point his hope is shattered. 


In contrast to the stationary dialogue duet in CASABLANCA, the 
Climax of the Karin/God plot in THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY 
shifts from place to place with slight ellipses of time, involves four 
characters, anchors itself at the level of inner conflict, and conveys 
its primary action physically. 


For this film Bergman designed a Multiplot of six interconnected 
stories. The most powerful is the conflict between Karin and her 
“God.” She suffers from delusional schizophrenia. During a period 
of lucidity, she's released from a hospital to join her family for a 
brief holiday at their cottage on an island in the Baltic. While she 
struggles to hold on to her sanity, she's surrounded by weak, trou¬ 
bled men who turn to her for support. 

David, Karin's father, is outwardly kind but emotionally 
repressed. He’s a popular novelist but hounded by his lack of crit¬ 
ical recognition. He prefers to observe life at a safe distance before 
cannibalizing it for his art. Karin wants her father to be happy and 
prays for his artistic success. 

Karin’s husband, Martin, is an MD. She craves his under¬ 
standing and approval; instead, he patronizes her like one of his 
patients and pesters her for sex. 

Karin’s brother, Minus, is her only true intimate. She confides 
in him, telling him the secrets of her terrifying delusions, but he's 
so troubled with adolescent sexuality and estrangement from his 
father that he gives her little consolation. Instead, Karin, sensing 
his fears, offers Minus comfort. 


Soon Karin's acute sensitivity (perhaps even psychic awareness) 
gives way to hallucination. She hears voices from behind an attic 
wall, telling her that God will appear. Scared, she turns to Martin, 
but he humiliates her over the lack of sex in their marriage. When 
she seeks out her father, he gently dismisses her like a child. 
Alone, Karin sneaks a look at her father’s diary and discovers that 
his only interest in her is as a character study for his next novel. 
She tries to tell her brother about the coming miracle of God’s visi¬ 
tation, but Minus is so confused and tormented by his cravings that 
he doesn’t understand. Suddenly, Karin’s madness takes a sexual 
turn. With feral intensity, she drags her brother down into incest. 

When David discovers what has happened, he’s moved more by 
self-pity than by concern for his children. Amazingly, Karin sympa¬ 
thizes with him, and knowing that he’s only interested in her as 
story material, gives her father insights into her illness. Martin 
interrupts, declaring that he must take Karin back to the mental 
hospital. He calls for an ambulance and starts to pack. 

Step One: Define Conflict 

Karin drives the scene. She believes in her voices and desperately 
hopes to see God, not only for her own needs but for her men. She 
wants to give them her epiphany, perhaps to win acceptance, but 
more importantly to help their troubled lives. Her sources of antago¬ 
nism are two: first, her husband. Martin is drawn to her sexually and 
pities her, but he can no longer cope with her madness, so he wants 
to take her away from her “God” and put her safely back in the hos¬ 
pital. The second, and more powerful, is herself. While she hopes to 
have a glimpse of heaven, her subconscious waits to give her a vision 
of hell. 

Step Two: Note Opening Value 

Hope, in a strange way, fills the opening of the scene. Karin is the 
most empathetic character in the film. We want her desire to see 
God to be fulfilled. Even if it’s a mad fantasy, it would give joy to a 


tormented woman. Furthermore, her many psychic experiences 
earlier in the film have led us to suspect that she may not be hallu¬ 
cinating. We hold out hope for a supernatural event; Karin's tri¬ 
umph over the self-centered men around her. 

Step Three: Break the Scene into Beats 
BEAT * 1 


Karin and Martin pack for the ambulance. Martin rummages 
through a chest of drawers, searching for a shirt. Karin's thoughts 
seem far away as she struggles with an overstuffed suitcase. 


Your shirts are washed hut 
not ironed. 

Karin’s action: PLANNING HER ESCAPE. 

I’ve got shirts in town 

Martin’s reaction: CONCEALING HIS GUILT. 


Help me shut the case, please. 

Martin wrestles with the lid, but a pair of shoes keeps the 
latch from catching. He takes them out and looks at them. 


It’s my shoes. I can leave 
them here. 



Why not wear these and leave 


(indicating the pair 
he is wearing) 

These have to he mended. 

He drops the shoes on the floor and hurriedly puts on his 
jacket. Karin slowly closes the suitcase lid. 

This beat is almost comic. Karin’s dressed and packed, but 
Martin, like a boy needing a mother, fumbles around. 
She’s a psychiatric patient returning to electric shock 
treatments, yet remains practical and composed; he’s a 
doctor flustered over which shoes to wear. On the text 
Karin seems to be packing, but in the subtext she’s plan¬ 
ning her next move. He’s so distracted by his guilty con¬ 
science, he doesn’t see that her outward calm conceals a 
mind scheming to pursue her u miracle” in the attic. 

BEAT *2 

Karin fingers the suitcase, quietly and thoughtfully. Then: 


Have you a headache pill? 

Karin’s action: ESCAPING TO HER “GOD.” 


(looking around the 

Where’s the brown case? 


Martin’s reaction: HELPING HER. 


In the kitchen. 



Yes, so it is. 

Martin rushes into the 


and finds his medical case on the table. He takes out some 
pills, fills a glass with water, then pads through the 


back to the 


As he enters, a quick glance tells him that Karin’s gone. 
Martin puts down the water and pills and rushes back into 

looking for her. 

Karin is more perceptive than Martin, but it's a measure 
of his self-absorption that she gives him the slip so easily. 
He knows schizophrenics can’t be left alone, but his guilt 
over taking her back to the hospital has him doing every¬ 
thing possible to please her. His caring attitude isn’t about 
her suffering but his. 


BEAT *3 

He glances outside, then runs to 
and opens the door, surprising David at the window. 


Seen Karin? 

Martin’s action: SEARCHING FOR KARIN. 



David’s reaction: HELPING HIM SEARCH. 

As Martin leaves in a panic, David follows out into the 

where he and Martin exchange uncertain glances. 

BEAT *4 

Then suddenly they hear Karin’s voice in WHISPERS . . 

Karin’s action: PRAYING. 

Martin prepares a sedative while David climbs the stairs. 

David’s reaction: RUSHING TO HER. 




Karin’s WHISPERS grow louder. 


(repeating the 

Yes, I see, I see . . . 

Karin's hallucination gives these men what they want. For 
Martin, the chance to play doctor; for David, the chance to 
observe his daughter’s illness at its most dramatic. 

BEAT *5 

David quietly steps to an unused 


and opens the door a few inches to peer inside. 


through the half-opened door of Karin standing in the middle 
of the room, staring at a wall with a closed closet door. Her 
voice is formal and prayerlike as she nearly chants the words. 


(talking to the wall) 

Yes, I quite see. 



staring at his daughter, transfixed by the scene she’s creating. 



I know it won’t be long now 


Martin, carrying his medical bag, joins David at the door. He 
glares at the sight of Karin talking to her imaginary listener. 


It’s good to know that. But 
we’ve been happy to wait. 

Martin’s reaction: FIGHTING HIS EMOTIONS. 

Karin supplicates before the voices behind the cracked 
wallpaper, but she's been well aware of the efforts to find 
her and of the now watchful eyes of her father, the sup¬ 
pressed anger of her husband. 

BEAT *6 

Martin hurries into the room and over to Karin, who anx¬ 
iously twists the beads around her neck and stares fixedly, 
reverently, at the wall and closet door. 


(to Martin) 

Walk quietly! They say he’ll 
be here very soon. We must 
be ready. 

Karin’s reaction: PROTECTING HER VISION. 


BEAT *7 


Karin, we’re going to town. 

Martin’s action: PULLING HER AWAY. 


I can’t leave now. 

Karin’s reaction: STANDING HER GROUND. 

BEAT *8 

You’re wrong, Karin. 

(looking at the 
closed door) 

Nothing is happening in there, 
(taking her 

No God will come through the 



He’ll come at any moment. 

And I must be here. 

Karin’s reaction: DEFENDING HER FAITH. 


Karin, it’s not so. 


BEAT *9 


Not so loud! If you can’t be 
quiet, go. 

Karin’s action: ORDERING MARTIN AWAY. 

Come with me. 


Must you spoil it? Leave me 

As David watches from the door, Karin pulls away from 
Martin, who withdraws to a chair, sits down, and cleans his 

Martin’s reaction: RETREATING. 

Karin is simply stronger than Martin. Unable to match her 
powerful will , he gives up and withdraws. 

BEAT * 1 0 

Karin kneels to face the wall and clasps her hands in prayer. 


Martin, dearest, forgive me 
for being so cross. But can’t 
you kneel down beside me? 

You look so funny sitting 
there. I know you don’t 
believe, but for my sake. 



Tears well up in Martin’s eyes, as in helpless anguish, he 
comes back to her and kneels. 

Martin’s reaction: SURRENDERING TO HER. 

All the while David watches from the doorway. 

Karin wants everything to be perfect for the arrival of her 
God, so she brings the unbeheving Martin into her strange 

BEAT *1 1 

Martin takes Karin by the shoulders and buries himself in the 
crook of her neck, rubbing his tearful face against her skin. 


Karin, dearest, dearest, 

Martin’s action: CARESSING HER. 

Karin is repulsed. She pries his hand off and yanks away. 

Karin’s reaction: FIGHTING HIM OFF. 

Helpless in the face of her madness, Martin instinctively 
tries to seduce her out of her mania, but his caresses fail 

BEAT * 1 2 

Karin folds her hands in front of her in prayer. 



Suddenly an ear-splitting HOAR fills the room. Karin’s eyes 
shift along the wall to the closet. 

“God’s” reaction: ANNOUNCING “GOD’S” ARRIVAL. 

BEAT * 1 3 

The closet door swings open, seemingly of its own accord. 

“God’s” action: APPEARING TO KARIN. 

Karin stands respectfully and smiles at something that seems 
to he emerging from the empty closet. 

Karin’s reaction: RECEIVING HER “GOD.” 

Outside the window, an ambulance helicopter descends from 
the sky. 

In the background, David eyes the scene intently. 

How and why does the door open by itself? Vibrations from 
the hehcopter perhaps, but that's not a satisfactory expla¬ 
nation. By pure coincidence, just as Karin prays for a mir¬ 
acle, door and helicopter join forces to give it to her. Yet, 
amazin gly, the action doesn't seem contrived. For 
Bergman's created, in Jungian terms, an event of Syn- 
chronicity: the fusion of meaningful coincidence around a 
center of tremendous emotion. By allowing us to hear 
Karin's voices, by showing us her acute sensitivity to 
nature, and by dramatizing her burning need for a miracle, 
we come to expect the supernatural. Karin’s rehgious pas¬ 
sion is at such a fever pitch that it creates a synchronous 
event that gives us a glimpse of something beyond the real. 


BEAT * 1 4 

Karin stares into the closet; her face freezes as she sees 
something startling. 

Karin’s “God’s” action: ATTACKING HER. 

Suddenly, she screams in terror, and as if being pursued, runs 
across the room, jamming herself into a corner, bringing her 
legs and arms up to protect herself. 

Karin’s reaction: FIGHTING OFF HER “GOD.” 

BEAT * 1 5 

Martin grabs her. 

Martin’s action: RESTRAINING HER. 

She pushes him off and flees to another corner. 

Karin’s reaction: ESCAPING MARTIN. 

BEAT * 1 6 

As if something were crawling up her body, she presses her 
fists into her groin, then flails wildly at an unseen assailant. 

“God’s” action: TRYING TO RAPE KARIN. 

Karin’s reaction: BATTLING “GOD’S” RAPE. 

Now David joins Martin and tries to hold her. 

David’s reaction: HELPING HOLD HER 


BEAT * 1 7 

But she breaks away and rushes out of the door into the 

and down the stairs. 

Karin’s action: FLEEING. 

Suddenly, Minus appears at the bottom. 

Minus blocks her way. Karin stops and stares at her brother. 

Minus’s reaction: TRAPPING HER. 

BEAT * 1 8 

David grabs her and pulls her down onto the stairs. Martin 
arrives with a syringe. Karin fights like a trapped animal. 

Martin’s and David’s action: SEDATING HER. 

Hold her legs. 

She thrashes in their arms as Martin struggles to give her an 


BEAT * 1 9 

She leans against her father and looks steadily into the anx¬ 
ious face of her brother. 


The sedative’s action: CALMING HER. 

Karen’s reaction: SURRENDERING TO THE DRUG. 
David’s and Martin’s reaction: CALMING THEMSELVES. 
Minus’s reaction: TRYING TO UNDERSTAND. 

BEAT *20 


I was suddenly afraid. 

Karin’s action: WARNING MINUS. 

All three men’s reaction: LISTENING QUIETLY. 


(slowly explaining 
to her brother) 

The door opened. But the god 
that came out was a spider. 

He came towards me and I 
saw his face. It was a hor¬ 
rible, stony face. He crawled 
up me and tried to force him¬ 
self into me. But I defended 
myself. The whole time I saw 
his eyes. They were calm and 
cold. As he couldn’t force his 
way into me, he climbed up 
onto my breast, onto my face 
and went up the wall. 

(a long look into 
Minus’s eyes) 

I have seen God. 


Although the spider-god rape is a delusion thrown up from 
her subconscious, once back in reality she treats the hallu¬ 
cination with ironic respect. She offers her terrifying dis¬ 
covery to all three men, but primarily to Minus as a 
cautionary tale, warning her brother that prayers will not 
be answered. 

Step Four: Note Closing Value and Compare with 
Opening Value 

Karin's encounter with the spider-god turns the scene from hope to 
hopelessness. She prays for an epiphany and gives this “miracle” to 
her father, knowing that because of his own incapacity for authentic 
emotion, he’s hungry for the life experiences of others to fill the pages 
of his novels. She offers faith to her husband, but his responses are 
limited to sexual gestures and medical posturing. Her “miracle” then 
explodes into a nightmare and her trust in God is shattered. 

In the final beat, Karin gives her grotesque vision to her 
brother as a warning, but this last gesture is slight, compared to the 
scene’s dramatization of overwhelming despair. We’re left with the 
feeling that intellectualizing love, as the novelist and doctor do 
throughout the film, is pitifully weak in the face of the incompre¬ 
hensible forces that inhabit our natures. 

Step Five: Survey the Beats and Locate the Turning 

1. Planning Her Escape/Concealing His Guilt 

2. Escaping Her “God”/Helping Her 

3. Searching for Karin/Helping Him Search 

4. Praying/Rushing to Her and Preparing to Recapture Her 

5. Preparing for Her Epiphany/Observing Her Madness and 
Fighting His Emotions. 

6. Stopping Her Hallucination/Protecting Her Dream 

7. Pulling Her Away/Standing Her Ground 


8. Denying the Existence of God/Defending Her Faith 

9. Ordering Martin Away/Retreating 

10. Drawing Martin to Her Ritual/Surrendering to Her 

11. Caressing Her/Fighting Him Off 

12. Praying with All Her Power/Announcing ‘‘God’s” Arrival 

13. Appearing to Karin/Receiving Her “God” 

14. Attacking Karin/Fighting Off Her “God” 

15. Restraining Her/Escaping Martin 

16. Trying to Rape Karin/Battling “God” 

17. Fleeing/Trapping Her 

18. Sedating Her/Resisting the Needle 

19. Calming Her/Calming Themselves and Trying to Understand 

20. Warning Minus/Listening Quietly 

Beats begin lightly, almost comically, then progress rapidly. 
Each action/reaction tops the previous exchange, demanding more 
from all the characters, and, in particular, demanding more and 
more willpower from Karin to survive her horrifying visions. The 
gap opens between Beats #13 and #14 when Karin’s expectation of 
God results in a sexual attack by a hallucinatory spider. Unlike the 
revelation that turns the scene from CASABLANCA, the Turning 
Point of this Climax pivots on action—in this case, an action of 
appalling power taken by the protagonist’s subconscious mind. 

These superb scenes have been used to demonstrate the technique 
of analysis. Although they differ in levels of conflict and quality of 
actions, they share the same essential form. What is virtually per¬ 
fect in them would be flawed in others of lesser worth. Ill-written 
scenes may lack conflict because desires are not opposed, may be 
antiprogressive because they're repetitious or circular, lopsided 
because their Turning Points come too early or too late, or lacking 
credibility because dialogue and action are “on the nose.” But an 
analysis of a problematic scene that tests beats against scene objec¬ 
tives, altering behavior to fit desire or desire to fit behavior, will 
lead to a rewrite that brings the scene to life. 


Composition means the ordering and linking of scenes. Like a com¬ 
poser choosing notes and chords, we shape progressions by selecting 
what to include, to exclude, to put before and after what. The task can 
be harrowing, for as we come to know our subject, every story possi¬ 
bility seems alive and squirming in a different direction. The disas¬ 
trous temptation is to somehow include them all. Fortunately, to 
guide our efforts the art has evolved canons of composition: Unity 
and Variety, Pacing, Rhythm and Tempo, Social and Personal Progres¬ 
sion, Symbolic and Ironic Ascension, and the Principle of Transition. 


A story, even when expressing chaos, must be unified. This sen¬ 
tence, drawn from any plot, should be logical: “Because of the 
Inciting Incident, the Climax had to happen .” JAWS: “Because the 
shark killed a swimmer, the sheriff had to destroy the shark.” 
KRAMER VS. KRAMER: “Because Kramer’s wife left him and her 
child, only husband and wife could finally settle custody.” We 
should sense a causal lock between Inciting Incident and Story 
Climax. The Inciting Incident is the story’s most profound cause, 
and, therefore, the final effect, the Story Climax, should seem 
inevitable. The cement that binds them is the Spine, the protago¬ 
nist’s deep desire to restore the balance of life. 

Unity is critical, but not sufficient. Within this unity, we must 
induce as much variety as possible. CASABLANCA, for example, is 


not only one of the most loved films of all time, it’s also one of the 
most various. It’s a brilliant Love Story, but more than half the film 
is Political Drama. Its excellent action sequences are counter- 
pointed by urbane comedy. And it’s the next thing to a Musical. 
Over a dozen tunes, strategically placed throughout, comment on 
or set up event, meaning, emotion. 

Most of us are not capable of this much variety, nor would our 
stories warrant it, but we don’t want to hit the same note over and 
over, so that every scene sounds like every other. Instead, we seek 
the tragic in the comic, the political in the personal, the personal 
driving the political, the extraordinary behind the usual, the trivial 
in the exalted. The key to varying a repetitious cadence is research. 
Superficial knowledge leads to a bland, monotonous telling. With 
authorial knowledge we can prepare a feast of pleasures. Or at the 
very least, add humor. 


If we slowly turn the screw, increasing tension a little more, a little 
more, a little more, scene by scene by scene by scene, we wear the 
audience out long before the ending. It goes limp and has no energy 
to invest in the Story Climax. Because a story is a metaphor for life, 
we expect it to feel like life, to have the rhythm of life. This rhythm 
beats between two contradictory desires: On one hand, we desire 
serenity, harmony, peace, and relaxation, but too much of this day 
after day and we become bored to the point of ennui and need 
therapy. As a result, we also desire challenge, tension, danger, even 
fear. But too much of this day after day and again we end up in the 
rubber room. So the rhythm of life swings between these poles. 

The rhythm of a typical day, for example: You wake up full of 
energy, meet your gaze in the morning mirror, and say: "Today I’m 
going to get something done. No, I mean it for a change. Today I’m 
definitely getting something done.” Off you go to "get something 
done” through a minefield of missed appointments, unretumed 
calls, pointless errands, and unrelenting hassle until you take a wel¬ 
come midday lunch with friends to chat, sip wine, relocate your 


sanity, relax and gather your energies so you can go off to do battle 
with the demons of the afternoon, hoping to get done all the things 
you didn’t get done in the morning—more missed calls, more use¬ 
less tasks, and never, never enough time. 

Finally you hit the highway home, a road packed with cars with 
only one person in each. Do you car pool? No. After a hard day on 
the job, the last thing you want is to jump into a car with three 
other jerks from work. You escape into your car, snap on the radio, 
and get in the proper lane according to the music. If classical, you 
hug the right; if pop, down the middle of the road; if rock, head 
left. We moan about traffic but never do anything about it because, 
in truth, we secretly enjoy rush hour; drive-time is the only time 
most of us are ever alone. You relax, scratch what needs scratching, 
and add a primal scream to the music. 

Home for a quick shower, then off into the night looking for 
fun. What’s fun? Amusement park rides that scare the life out of 
you, a film that makes you suffer emotions you’d never want in 
life, a singles bar and the humiliation of rejection. Weary, you fall 
into the rack and next dawn start this rhythm all over again. 

This alternation between tension and relaxation is the pulse of 
living, the rhythm of days, even years. In some films it’s salient, in 
others subtle. TENDER MERCIES eases dramatic pressure gently 
up, then gently down, each cycle slowly increasing the overall ten¬ 
sion to Climax; THE FUGITIVE sculpts tension to sharp peaks, 
then ebbs briefly before accelerating higher still. Each film speaks 
in its natural accent, but never in flat, repetitious, passive non- 
events, or in unrelenting, bludgeoning action. Whether Archplot, 
Miniplot, or Antiplot, all fine stories flux with the rhythm of life. 

We use our act structure to start at a base of tension, then rise 
scene by sequence to the Climax of Act One. As we enter Act Two, 
we compose scenes that reduce this tension, switching to comedy, 
romance, a counterpointing mood that lowers the Act One intensity 
so that the audience can catch its breath and reach for more energy. 
We coach the audience to move like a long-distance runner who, 
rather than loping at a constant pace, speeds, slows, then speeds 
again, creating cycles that allow him to reach the limit of his reserves. 


After retarding pace, we build the progressions of the following act 
until we top the previous Climax in intensity and meaning. Act by 
act, we tighten and release tension until the final Climax empties out 
the audience, leaving it emotionally exhausted but fulfilled. Then a 
brief Resolution scene to recuperate before going home. 

It’s just like sex. Masters of the bedroom arts pace their love- 
making. They begin by taking each other to a state of delicious ten¬ 
sion short of—and we use the same word in both cases—climax, 
then tell a joke and shift positions before building each other to an 
even higher tension short of climax; then have a sandwich, watch 
TV, and gather energy to then reach greater and greater intensity, 
making love in cycles of rising tension until they finally climax 
simultaneously and the earth moves and they see colors. The gra¬ 
cious storyteller makes love to us. He knows we’re capable of a 
tremendous release ... if he paces us to it. 


Rhythm is set by the length of scenes. How long are we in the same 
time and place? A typical two-hour feature plays forty to sixty scenes. 
This means, on average, a scene lasts two and a half minutes. But not 
every scene. Rather, for every one-minute scene there’s a four-minute 
scene. For every thirty-second scene, a six-minute scene. In a prop¬ 
erly formatted screenplay a page equals a minute of screen time. 
Therefore, if as you turn through your script, you discover a two-page 
scene followed by an eight-page scene, a seven-page scene, three- 
page scene, four-page, six-page, five-page, one-page, nine-page—in 
other words, if the average length of scene in your script is five pages, 
your story will have the pace of a postal worker on Valium. 

Most directors’ cameras drink up whatever is visually expres¬ 
sive in one location within two or three minutes. If a scene goes on 
longer, shots become redundant. The editor keeps coming back to 
the same establishing shot, same two-shot, close-up. When shots 
repeat, expressivity drains away; the film becomes visually dull and 
the eye loses interest and wanders from the screen. Do this enough 
and you’ll lose the audience for good. The average scene length of 


two to three minutes is a reaction to the nature of cinema and the 
audience’s hunger for a stream of expressive moments. 

When we study the many exceptions to this principle, they only 
prove the point. TWELVE ANGRY MEN takes place over two days 
in a jury room. In essence, it consists of two fifty-minute scenes in 
one location, with a brief break for a night’s sleep. But because it’s 
based on a play, director Sidney Lumet could take advantage of its 
French Scenes. 

In the Neoclassical period (1750-1850) the French theatre 
strictly obeyed the Unities: A set of conventions that restricted a 
play’s performance to one basic action or plot, taking place in one 
location within the time it takes to perform. But the French real¬ 
ized that within this unity of time and space the entrance or exit of 
principal characters radically changes the dynamics of relationships 
and in effect creates a new scene. For example, in a garden setting 
young lovers play a scene together, then her mother discovers 
them. Her entrance so alters character relationships that it effects a 
new scene. This trio has a scene, then the young man exits. His 
exit so rearranges the relationship between mother and daughter 
that masks fall and a new scene begins. 

Understanding the principle of French scenes , Lumet broke the 
jury room into sets within the set—the drinking fountain, cloakroom, 
window, one end of the table versus the other. Within these subloca¬ 
tions, he staged French Scenes: First jury members #1 and #2, then #2 
exits while #5 and #7 enter, CUT TO #6 alone, CUT TO all twelve, 
CUT TO five of them off in a comer, and so on. The over eighty 
French Scenes in TWELVE ANGRY MEN build an exciting rhythm. 

MY DINNER WITH ANDRE is even more contained: a two- 
hour film about a two-hour dinner with two characters and there¬ 
fore no French Scenes. Yet the film pulses with rhythm because it's 
paced with scenes created, as in literature, by painting word pic¬ 
tures on the imagination of the listener: the adventure in the Polish 
forest, Andre’s friends burying him alive in a bizarre ritual, the 
synchronistic phenomenon he encounters in his office. These eru¬ 
dite recountings wrap an Education Plot around an Education Plot. 
As Andre (Andre Gregory) relates his quixotic adventure toward 


spiritual development, he so cants his friend’s view of life that 
Wally (Wallace Shawn) leaves the restaurant a changed man. 

Tempo is the level of activity within a scene via dialogue, action, 
or a combination. For example, lovers talking quietly from pillow to 
pillow may have low tempo; an argument in a courtroom, high 
tempo. A character staring out a window coming to a vital life deci¬ 
sion may have low tempo; a riot, high tempo. 

In a well-told story, the progression of scenes and sequences 
accelerates pace. As we head toward act climaxes, we take advan¬ 
tage of rhythm and tempo to progressively shorten scenes while the 
activity in them becomes more and more brisk. Like music and 
dance, story is kinetic. We want to use cinema’s sensory power to 
hurl the audience toward act climaxes because scenes of major 
reversal are, in fact, generally long, slow, and tense. “Climactic” 
doesn’t mean short and explosive; it means profound change. Such 
scenes are not to be skimmed over. So we open them and let them 
breathe; we retard pace while the audience holds its breath, won¬ 
dering what’s going to happen next. 

Again, the Law of Diminishing Returns applies: The more 
often we pause, the less effective a pause is. If the scenes before a 
major Climax are long and slow, the big scene in which we want 
the tension to hold falls flat. Because we’ve dragged the energies of 
the audience through sluggish scenes of minor importance, events 
of great moment are greeted with a shrug. Instead, we must “earn 
the pause” by telescoping rhythm while spiraling tempo, so that 
when the Climax arrives, we can put the brakes on, stretch the 
playing time, and the tension holds. 

The problem with this design, of course, is that it’s a cliche. 
D. W. Griffith mastered it. Filmmakers of the Silent Era knew that 
something as trivial as another chase to collar the bad guys can feel 
tremendous if pace is excited by making scenes ever shorter and 
tempo ever hasty. But techniques don’t become cliches unless they 
have something important going for them in the first place. We, 
therefore, cannot, out of ignorance or arrogance, ignore the prin¬ 
ciple. If we lengthen and slow scenes prior to a major reversal, we 
cripple our Climax. 


Pace begins in the screenplay. Cliche or not, we must control 
rhythm and tempo. It needn’t be a symmetrical swelling of activity 
and shaving of scene lengths, but progressions must be shaped. 
For if we don’t, the film editor will. And if to trim our sloppy work 
he cuts some of our favorite moments, we have no one to blame 
but ourselves. We’re screenwriters, not refugees from the novel. 
Cinema is a unique art form. The screenwriter must master the 
aesthetics of motion pictures and create a screenplay that prepares 
the way for the artists who follow. 


When a story genuinely progresses it calls upon greater and greater 
human capacity, demands greater and greater willpower, generates 
greater and greater change in characters’ lives, and places them at 
greater and greater jeopardy. How are we to express this? How will 
the audience sense the progressions? There are four primary tech¬ 


Widen the impact of character actions into society. 

Let your story begin intimately, involving only a few principal char¬ 
acters. But as the telling moves forward, allow their actions to 
ramify outward into the world around them, touching and 
changing the lives of more and more people. Not all at once. 
Rather, spread the effect gradually through the progressions. 

LONE STAR: Two men searching for spent shells on a deserted 
rifle range in Texas uncover the skeletal remains of a sheriff who van¬ 
ished decades before. Evidence at the scene leads the current sheriff 
to suspect that his own father may have committed the murder. As he 
investigates, the story spreads outward into society and back through 
time, tracing a pattern of corruption and injustice that has touched 
and changed the lives of three generations of Texan-, Mexican- and 
African Americans—virtually every citizen in Rio County. 


MEN IN BLACK: A chance encounter between a farmer and a 
fugitive alien searching for a rare gem slowly ramifies outward to 
jeopardize all of creation. 

This principle of starting with intimate problems that ramify 
outward into the world to build powerful progressions explains why 
certain professions are overrepresented in the roles of protagonists. 
This is why we tend to tell stories about lawyers, doctors, warriors, 
politicians, scientists—people so positioned in society by profes¬ 
sion that if something goes haywire in their private lives, the writer 
can expand the action into society. 

Imagine a story that begins like this: The President of the 
United States gets up one morning to shave and as he stares in the 
mirror, he hallucinates about imaginary enemies around the globe. 
He tells no one, but soon his wife realizes he’s gone mad. His close 
associates too. They gather and decide that since he has only six 
months left in office, why spoil things now? They’ll cover up for 
him. But we know he has "his finger on the button” and a madman 
in this position could turn our troubled world into universal hell. 


Drive actions deeply into the intimate relationships and 
inner lives of the characters. 

If the logic of your setting doesn’t allow you to go wide, then you 
must go deep. Start with a personal or inner conflict that demands 
balancing, yet seems relatively solvable. Then, as the work pro¬ 
gresses, hammer the story downward—emotionally, psychologi¬ 
cally, physically, morally—to the dark secrets, the unspoken truths 
that hide behind a public mask. 

ORDINARY PEOPLE is confined to the family, a friend, and 
a doctor. From a tension between mother and son that seems 
solvable with communication and love, it descends to grievous 
pain. As the father slowly comes to realize he must choose 
between the sanity of his son and the unity of his family, the 
story drives the child to the brink of suicide, the mother to reveal 


her hatred of her own child, and the husband to lose a wife he 
deeply loves. 

CHINATOWN is an elegant design that combines both tech¬ 
niques, reaching simultaneously wide and deep. A private eye is 
hired to investigate a man for adultery. Then, like an oil slick, the 
story moves outward in an ever-widening circle that engulfs city 
hall, millionaire conspirators, farmers of the San Fernando Valley, 
until it contaminates all the citizens of Los Angeles. At the same 
time it plunges inward. Gittes is under constant assault: kicks to the 
groin, blows to the head, his nose split open. Mulwray is killed, 
incest exposed between father and daughter until the protagonist’s 
tragic past repeats to trigger the death of Evelyn Mulwray and throw 
an innocent child into the hands of an insane father/grandfather. 


Build the symbolic charge of the story's imagery from 
the particular to the universal, the specific to the 

A good story well told fosters a good film. But a good story well told 
with the added power of subliminal symbolism lifts the telling to 
the next level of expressivity, and the payoff may be a great film. 
Symbolism is very compelling. Like images in our dreams, it 
invades the unconscious mind and touches us deeply—as long as 
we’re unaware of its presence. If, in a heavy-handed way, we label 
images as “symbolic,” their effect is destroyed. But if they are 
slipped quietly, gradually, and unassumingly into the telling, they 
move us profoundly. 

Symbolic progression works in this way: start with actions, 
locations, and roles that represent only themselves. But as the story 
progresses, chose images that gather greater and greater meaning, 
until by the end of the telling characters, settings, and events stand 
for universal ideas. 

THE DEER HUNTER introduces steel workers in Pennsylvania 
who like to hunt, drink beer, and carouse. They’re as ordinary as 


the town they live in. But as events progress, sets, roles, and actions 
become more and more symbolically charged, building from the 
tiger cages in Vietnam to the highly symbolic scenes in a Saigon 
casino where men play Russian Roulette for money, culminating in 
a Crisis at the top of a mountain. The protagonist, Michael (Robert 
De Niro) progresses from factory worker to warrior to “The 
Hunter," the man who kills. 

The film's Controlling Idea is: We save our own humanity when 
we stop killing other living beings . If the hunter spills enough blood, 
sooner or later he runs out of targets and turns the gun on himself. 
He either literally kills himself, as does Nick (Christopher Walken), 
or more likely, he kills himself in the sense that he stops feeling 
anything and falls dead inside. The Crisis sends Michael in his 
hunter's garb, armed with a weapon, to a mountaintop. There, on a 
precipice, the prey, a magnificent elk, comes out of the mist. An 
archetypal image: hunter and prey at the top of a mountain. Why the 
top of a mountain? Because tops of mountains are places where 
“great things happen.” Moses is given the Ten Commandments, 
not in his kitchen, but at the top of a mountain. 

THE TERMINATOR takes symbolic progression in a different 
direction, not up the mountain but into the maze. Opening with 
step-down imagery of commonplace people in commonplace set¬ 
tings, it tells the story of Sarah Connor, a fast-food waitress in Los 
Angeles. Suddenly, the Terminator and Reese explode into the pre¬ 
sent from the year 2029, and pursue Sarah through the streets of 
L.A., one trying to kill her, the other to save her. 

We learn that in the future robots become self-aware and try to 
stamp out the human race that created them. They nearly succeed 
when the remnants of humanity are led in a revolt by the charis¬ 
matic John Connor. He turns the tide against the robots and all but 
stamps them out, when the robots invent a time machine and send 
into the past an assassin to kill Connor's mother before he’s born, 
thus eliminating Connor from existence and winning the war for 
the robots. Connor captures the time machine, discovers the plan, 
and sends back his lieutenant, Reese, to kill this monster before it 
kills his mother. 


The streets of Los Angeles conspire into the ancient archetype 
of the labyrinth. Freeways, alleyways, cul-de-sacs, and corridors of 
buildings twist and turn the characters until they work their way 
down to its tangled heart. There Sarah, like Theseus at the center of 
the Minoan maze battling the half-man/half-bull Minotaur, con¬ 
fronts the half-man/half-robot Terminator. If she vanquishes the 
demon, she will, like the Virgin Mary, give birth to the savior of 
humanity, John Connor (JC), and raise him to lead humanity to 
deliverance in the coming holocaust. Sarah progresses from wait¬ 
ress to goddess, and the film's symbolic progression lifts it above 
almost all others in its genre. 


Turn progression on irony. 

Irony is the subtlest manifestation of story pleasure, that delicious 
sense of “Ah, life is just like that.” It sees life in duality; it plays 
with our paradoxical existence, aware of the bottomless chasm 
between what seems and what is. Verbal irony is found in the dis¬ 
crepancy between words and their meanings—a primary source of 
jokes. But in story, irony plays between actions and results—the 
primary source of story energy, between appearance and reality— 
the primary source of truth and emotion. 

An ironic sensibility is a precious asset, a razor to cut to the truth, 
but it can’t be used directly. It does us no good to have a character 
wander the story saying, “How ironic!” like symbolism, to point at 
irony destroys it. Irony must be coolly, casually released with a seem¬ 
ingly innocent unawareness of the effect it’s creating and a faith that 
the audience will get it. Because irony is by nature slippery, it defies a 
hard and fast definition, and is best explained by example. Below are 
six ironic story patterns with an example for each. 

1. He gets at last what he's always wanted . . . but too 
late to have it. 

OTHELLO: The Moor finally gets what he always wanted, 


a wife who is true to him and who never betrayed him with 
another man ... but when he finds that out, it’s too late, 
because he just killed her. 

2. He's pushed further and further from his goal . . . only 
to discover that in fact he's been led right to it. 

RUTHLESS PEOPLE: The greedy businessman, Sam (Danny 
Devito), steals an idea from Sandy (Helen Slater) and makes 
a fortune without paying her a cent of royalties. Sandy’s hus¬ 
band, Ken (Judge Reinhold), decides to kidnap Sam’s wife, 
Barbara (Bette Midler), and ransom her for the two million 
dollars he feels his wife is owed. But when Ken abducts Bar¬ 
bara, he doesn’t know that Sam is coming home to murder 
his shrewish and overweight wife. Ken calls Sam 
demanding millions, but the gleeful Sam puts him off. Ken 
keeps lowering the price until at ten thousand dollars Sam 
says, “Oh, why don’t you just kill her and get it over with." 

Meanwhile, Barbara, held captive in the Kessler base¬ 
ment, has turned her prison into a spa. She’s following all 
the exercise programs on TV, Sandy’s an excellent natural 
foods cook, and as a result, Barbara loses more weight than 
she ever did at the best fat farms in America. Consequently, 
she loves her kidnappers. And when they tell her they’ll 
have to let her go because her husband won’t pay the 
ransom, she turns to them and says, “I'll get the money for 
ya.” That was Act One. 

3. He throws away what he later finds is indispensable to 
his happiness. 

MOULIN ROUGE: The crippled artist Toulouse-Lautrec (Jose 
Ferrer) falls in love with the beautiful Suzanne (Myriamme 
Hayem) but can’t bring himself to tell her this. She accompa¬ 
nies him as a friend around Paris. Lautrec becomes convinced 
that the only reason she spends time with him is that it gives 
her the opportunity to meet handsome men. In a drunken 
rage he accuses her of using him and storms out of her life. 


Some time later he receives a letter from Suzanne: “Dear 
Toulouse, I always hoped that some day you might love me. 
Now I realize that you never will. So I have taken the offer 
of another man. I don’t love him, but he’s kind and as you 
know my situation is desperate. Adieu.” Lautrec frantically 
searches for her, but indeed she’s left to marry another. So 
he drinks himself to death. 

4. To reach a goal he unwittingly takes the precise steps 
necessary to lead him away. 

TOOTSIE: Michael (Dustin Hoffman), an out-of-work actor 
whose perfectionism has alienated every producer in New 
York, impersonates a woman and is cast in a soap opera. On 
the set he meets and falls in love with Julie (Jessica Lange). 
But he’s such a brilliant actor, her father (Charles Durning) 
wants to marry him while Julie suspects he’s a lesbian. 

5. The action he takes to destroy something becomes 
exactly what are needed to be destroyed by it. 

RAIN: The religious bigot Reverend Davidson (Walter 
Huston) battles to save the soul of the prostitute Sadie 
Thompson (Joan Crawford), but falls into lust for her, rapes 
her, then kills himself in shame. 

6 . He comes into possession of something he's certain will 
make him miserable, does everything possible to get 
rid of it . . . only to discover it's the gift of happiness. 

BRINGING UP BABY: When the madcap socialite Susan 
(Katharine Hepburn) inadvertently steals the car of the 
naive and repressed paleontologist Dr. David Huxley (Cary 
Grant), she likes what she sees and sticks to him like glue. 
He tries everything possible to get rid of her, but she foils 
his lunatic evasions, chiefly by stealing his bone, the “inter¬ 
costal clavicle” of a brontosaurus. (If there were such a 
thing as an “intercostal clavicle,” it would belong to a crea¬ 
ture with its head attached well below its shoulders.) 


Susan’s persistence pays off as she transforms David from 
fossilized child to life-embracing adult. 

The key to ironic progression is certainty and precision. Like 
CHINATOWN, SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, and many other superb 
films, these are stories of protagonists who feel they know for cer¬ 
tain what they must do and have a precise plan how to do it. They 
think life is A, B, C, D, E. That’s just when life likes to turn you 
around, kick you in the butt, and grin: “Not today, my friend. Today 
it’s E, D, C, B, A. Sorry.” 


A story without a sense of progression tends to stumble from one 
scene to the next. It has little continuity because nothing links its 
events. As we design cycles of rising action, we must at the same 
time transition the audience smoothly through them. Between two 
scenes, therefore, we need a third element, the link that joins the 
tail of Scene A with the head of Scene B. Generally, we find this 
third element in one of two places: what the scenes have in 
common or what they have in opposition. 

The third element is the hinge for a transition; some¬ 
thing held in common by two scenes or counterpointed 
between them. 


1. A characterization trait. In common: cut from a bratty child 
to a childish adult. In opposition: cut from awkward protag¬ 
onist to elegant antagonist. 

2. An action. In common: From the foreplay of lovemaking to 
savoring the afterglow. In opposition: From chatter to cold 

3. An object. In common: From greenhouse interior to woodland 
exterior. In opposition: From the Congo to Antarctica. 


4. A word. In common: A phrase repeated from scene to 
scene. In opposition: From compliment to curse. 

5. A quality of light. In common: From shadows at dawn to 
shade at sunset. In opposition: From blue to red. 

6. A sound. In common: From waves lapping a shore to the 
rise and fall of a sleeper’s breath. In opposition: From silk 
caressing skin to the grinding of gears. 

7. An idea. In common: From a child’s birth to an overture. In 
opposition: From a painter’s empty canvas to an old man dying. 

After a century of filmmaking, transition cliches abound. Yet 
we can’t put down the task. An imaginative study of almost any two 
scenes will find a link. 




Crisis is the third of the five-part form. It means decision. Charac¬ 
ters make spontaneous decisions each time they open this mouths 
to say "this” not “that.” In each scene they make a decision to take 
one action rather than another. But Crisis with a capital C is the 
ultimate decision. The Chinese ideogram for Crisis is two terms: 
Danger/Opportunity—“danger” in that the wrong decision at this 
moment will lose forever what we want; “opportunity” in that the 
right choice will achieve our desire. 

The protagonist's quest has carried him through the Progres¬ 
sive Complications until he’s exhausted all actions to achieve his 
desire, save one. He now finds himself at the end of the line. His 
next action is his last. No tomorrow. No second chance. This 
moment of dangerous opportunity is the point of greatest tension in 
the story as both protagonist and audience sense that the question 
"How will this turn out?” will be answered out of the next action. 

The Crisis is the story’s Obligatory Scene. From the Inciting 
Incident on, the audience has been anticipating with growing vivid¬ 
ness the scene in which the protagonist will be face to face with the 
most focused, powerful forces of antagonism in his existence. This 
is the dragon, so to speak, that guards the Object of Desire: be it 
the literal dragon of JAWS or the metaphorical dragon of meaning- 



lessness in TENDER MERCIES. The audience leans into the Crisis 
filled with expectation mingled with uncertainty. 

The Crisis must be true dilemma—a choice between irrecon¬ 
cilable goods, the lesser of two evils, or the two at once that places 
the protagonist under the maximum pressure of his life. 

This dilemma confronts the protagonist who, when 
face-to-face with the most powerful and focused forces 
of antagonism in his life, must make a decision to take 
one action or another in a last effort to achieve his 
Object of Desire. 

How the protagonist chooses here gives us the most pene¬ 
trating view of his deep character, the ultimate expression of his 

This scene reveals the story's most important value. If there's 
been any doubt about which value is central, as the protagonist 
makes the Crisis Decision, the primary value comes to the fore. 

At Crisis the protagonist’s willpower is most severely tested. As 
we know from life, decisions are far more difficult to make than 
actions are to take. We often put off doing something for as long as 
possible, then as we finally make the decision and step into the 
action, we’re surprised by its relative ease. We’re left to wonder 
why we dreaded doing it until we realize that most of life’s actions 
are within our reach, but decisions take willpower. 


The action the protagonist chooses to take becomes the story’s con¬ 
summate event, causing a positive, negative, or ironically posi¬ 
tive/negative Story Climax. If, however, as the protagonist takes the 
climactic action, we once more pry apart the gap between expecta¬ 
tion and result, if we can split probability from necessity just one 
more time, we may create a majestic ending the audience will trea¬ 
sure for a lifetime. For a Climax built around a Turning Point is 
the most satisfying of all. 


We've taken the protagonist through progressions that exhaust 
one action after another until he reaches the limit and thinks he 
finally understands his world and knows what he must do in a last 
effort. He draws on the dregs of his willpower, chooses an action he 
believes will achieve his desire, but, as always, his world won’t coop¬ 
erate. Reality splits and he must improvise. The protagonist may or 
may not get what he wants, but it won’t be the way he expects. 

the Crisis of STAR WARS Luke Skywalker attacks the "Death Star,” 
a manmade fortress as huge as a planet. But it’s not fully con¬ 
structed. A vulnerable slot lies open on one side of the sphere. Luke 
must not only attack into the slot, but hit a vulnerable spot within 
it. He’s an expert fighter pilot but tries without success to hit the 
spot. As he maneuvers his craft by computer, he hears the voice of 
Obi-Wan Kenobi: “Go with the Force, go with the Force.” 

A sudden dilemma of irreconcilable goods: the computer 
versus the mysterious “Force.” He wrestles with the anguish of 
choice, then pushes his computer aside, flies by instinct into the 
slot, and fires a torpedo that hits the spot. The destruction of the 
Death Star climaxes the film, a straight action out of the Crisis. 

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, by contrast, corkscrews its 
Climax: Face to face with Darth Vader, Luke is met by a Crisis of 
courage. Irreconcilable goods: He could attack and kill Vader, or he 
could flee and save his life. The lesser of two evils: He could attack 
Vader and be killed, or he could flee, making him a coward and 
betraying his friends. Luke musters his courage and chooses to 
fight. However, when Vader suddenly steps back and says: “You 
can’t kill me, Luke . . . I'm your father," Luke’s reality splinters. In 
a flash he realizes the truth and now must make yet another Crisis 
Decision: whether to kill his father. 

Luke confronts the agony of this decision and chooses to fight. 
But Vader cuts off his hand and Luke drops to the deck. Still, it’s 
not over. Vader announces that he wants Luke to join his campaign 
to bring “order to things” in the universe. A second Gap opens as 
Luke realizes that his father doesn't want him dead, he’s offering 
him a job. He must make a third Crisis Decision, a lesser-of-two- 


evils dilemma: to join the “dark side” or take his own life? He 
makes the heroic choice, and as these Gaps explode, the Climax 
delivers deep rushes of insight uniting two films. 

Placement of the Crisis 

The location of the Crisis is determined by the length 

of the climactic action. 

Generally, Crisis and Climax happen in the last minutes and in the 
same scene. 

THELMA & LOUISE: At Crisis the women brave the lesser of 
two evils: imprisonment versus death. They look at each other and 
make their Crisis Decision to "go for it,” a courageous choice to take 
their own lives. They immediately drive their car into the Grand 
Canyon—an unusually brief Climax elongated by filming it in slow- 
motion and freeze-framing on the car suspended over the abyss. 

However, in other stories the Climax becomes an expansive 
action with its own progressions. As a result, it's possible to use the 
Crisis Decision to turn the Penultimate Act Climax, filling all of the 
final act with climactic action. 

CASABLANCA: Rick pursues lisa until she surrenders to him 
in the Act Two Climax, saying that he must make the decisions for 
everyone. In the next scene, Laszlo urges Rick to rejoin the antifas¬ 
cist cause. This irreconcilable-goods dilemma turns the act on 
Rick's selfless Crisis Decision to return lisa to Laszlo and put wife 
and husband on the plane to America, a character-defining choice 
that reverses his conscious desire for lisa. The third act of 
CASABLANCA is fifteen minutes of climactic action that unravels 
Rick's surprise-filled scheme to help the couple escape. 

In rarer examples the Crisis Decision immediately follows the 
Inciting Incident and the entire film becomes climactic action. 

JAMES BOND: Inciting Incident: Bond is offered the task of 
hunting down an arch-villain. Crisis Decision: Bond takes the 
assignment—a right/wrong choice and not a true dilemma, for it 
would never occur to him to choose otherwise. From this point on, 


all Bond films are an elaborate progression of a single action: the 
pursuit of the villain. Bond never makes another decision of sub¬ 
stance, simply choices of which ploys to use in the pursuit. 

LEAVING LAS VEGAS has the identical form. Inciting Inci¬ 
dent: the protagonist is fired and given a sizable severance check. 
He immediately makes his Crisis Decision to go to Las Vegas and 
drink himself to death. From this point on the film becomes a sad 
progression toward death as he follows his desire. 

IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES: Inciting Incident: Lovers 
meet within the first ten minutes and decide to abandon society 
and normalcy for a life of sexual obsession. The remaining hun¬ 
dred minutes are devoted to sexual experimentations that eventu¬ 
ally lead to death. 

The great risk of placing the Crisis on the heels of the Inciting 
Incident is repetitiousness. Whether it's high-budget action 
repeating patterns of chase/fight, chase/fight, or low-budget repeti¬ 
tions of drinking/drinking/drinking or lovemaking/lovemaking/ 
lovemaking, the problems of variety and progression are stag¬ 
gering. Yet mastery of this task may produce brilliance, as it did in 
the examples above. 

Design of the Crisis 

Although the Crisis Decision and climactic action usually take 
place in continuous time within the same location at the very end 
of the telling, it's not uncommon for the Crisis decision to occur in 
one location, the Story Climax later in another setting. 

The value of love in KRAMER VS. KRAMER turns negative at the 
Act Two Climax as a judge awards custody to Kramer’s ex-wife. As Act 
Three opens Kramer’s lawyer lays out the situation: Kramer has lost, 
but he could win on appeal. To do so, however, he’ll have to put his 
son on the witness stand and make the child choose with whom he 
wants to live. The boy will probably choose his father, and Kramer will 
win. But to put a child at this tender age in public and force him to 
choose between his mother and his father will psychologically scar 
him for life. A double dilemma of the needs of self versus the needs of 


another, the suffering of the self versus the suffering of another. 
Kramer looked up and said, “No, I can’t do that.” Cut to the Climax: a 
walk in Central Park and a river of tears as the father explains to his 
son how their life will be now that they’ll live apart. 

If the Crisis takes place in one location and the Climax later in 
another, we must splice them together on a cut, fusing them in 
filmic time and space. If we do not, if we cut from the Crisis to 
other material—a subplot, for example—we drain the pent-up 
energy of the audience into an anticlimax. 

The Crisis decision must be a deliberately static moment. 

This is the Obligatory Scene. Do not put it offscreen , or skim over 
it. The audience wants to suffer with the protagonist through the 
pain of this dilemma. We freeze this moment because the rhythm 
of the last movement depends on it. An emotional momentum has 
built to this point, but the Crisis dams its flow. As the protagonist 
goes through this decision, the audience leans in, wondering: 
“What's he going to do? What’s he going to do?” Tension builds 
and builds, then as the protagonist makes a choice of action, that 
compressed energy explodes into the Climax. 

THELMA & LOUISE: This Crisis is masterfully delayed as the 
women stutter over the word “go.” “I say, let’s go.” “Go? What do you 
mean 'go’?” “Well. .. just go.” “You mean . . . go?” They hesitate and 
hesitate as tension builds and the audience prays they won't kill them¬ 
selves but at the same time is thrilled by their courage. As they put the 
car in gear, the dynamite of compacted anxiety blasts into the Climax. 

THE DEER HUNTER: Michael stalks to the top of a mountain. 
But with his prey in his sights, he pauses. Tension builds and 
tightens as the moment extends and the audience dreads the 
killing of this beautiful elk. At this Crisis point the protagonist 
makes a decision that takes him through a profound change of 
character. He lowers his weapon and transforms within from a 
man who takes life to a man who saves life. This stunning reversal 
turns the Penultimate Act Climax. The pent-up compassion in the 
audience pours into the story's last movement as Michael now 


rushes back to Vietnam to save his friend’s life, filling the final act 
with rising climactic action. 


Story Climax is the fourth of the five-part structure. This crowning 
Major Reversal is not necessarily full of noise and violence. Rather, 
it must be full of meaning. If I could send a telegram to the film 
producers of the world, it would be these three words: “Meaning 
Produces Emotion ” Not money; not sex; not special effects; not 
movie stars; not lush photography. 

MEANING: A revolution in values from positive to neg¬ 
ative or negative to positive with or without irony—a 
value swing at maximum charge that's absolute and 
irreversible. The meaning of that change moves the 
heart of the audience. 

The action that creates this change must be “pure,” clear, and 
self-evident, requiring no explanation. Dialogue or narration to 
spell out it out is boring and redundant. 

This action must be appropriate to the needs of the story. It 
may be catastrophic: The sublime battle sequence that climaxes 
GLORY, or outwardly trivial: A woman rises from a quiet talk with 
her husband, packs a suitcase, and goes out the door. That action, 
in the context of ORDINARY PEOPLE, is overwhelming. At Crisis, 
the values of family love and unity tip toward the positive as the 
husband desperately exposes his family’s bitter secret. But at 
Climax, the moment his wife walks out, they swing to an absolute, 
irreversible negative. If, on the other hand, she were to stay, her 
hatred of her son might finally drive the boy to suicide. So her 
leaving is then toned with a positive counterpoint that ends the 
film on a painful, but overall negative, irony. 

The Climax of the last act is your great imaginative leap. 
Without it, you have no story. Until you have it, your characters 
wait like suffering patients praying for a cure. 


Once the Climax is in hand, stories are in a significant way 
rewritten backward, not forward. The flow of life moves from cause 
to effect, but the flow of creativity often flows from effect to cause. 
An idea for the Climax pops unsupported into the imagination. 
Now we must work backward to support it in the fictional reality, 
supplying the hows and whys. We work back from the ending to 
make certain that by Idea and Counter-Idea every image, beat, 
action, or line of dialogue somehow relates to or sets up this grand 
payoff. All scenes must be thematically or structurally justified in 
the light of the Climax. If they can be cut without disturbing the 
impact of the ending, they must be cut. 

If logic allows, climax subplots within the Central Plot’s 
Climax. This is a wonderful effect; one final action by the protago¬ 
nist settles everything. When Rick puts Laszlo and lisa on the plane 
in CASABLANCA, he settles the Love Story main plot and the Polit¬ 
ical Drama subplot, converts Captain Renault to patriotism, kills 
Major Strasser, and, we feel, is the key to winning World War II 
. . . now that Rick is back in the fight. 

If this multiplying effect is impossible, the least important sub¬ 
plots are best climaxed earliest, followed by the next most impor¬ 
tant, building overall to Climax of the Central Plot. 

William Goldman argues that the key to all story endings is to give 
the audience what it wants, but not the way it expects. A very provoca¬ 
tive principle: First of all, what does the audience want? Many pro¬ 
ducers state without blinking that the audience wants a happy 
ending. They say this because up-ending films tend to make more 
money than down-ending films. 

The reason for this is that a small percentage of the audience 
won’t go to any film that might give it an unpleasant experience. Gen¬ 
erally their excuse is that they have enough tragedy in their lives. But if 
we were to look closely, we’d discover that they not only avoid negative 
emotions in movies, they avoid them in life. Such people think that 
happiness means never suffering, so they never feel anything deeply. 
The depth of our joy is in direct proportion to what we’ve suffered. 
Holocaust survivors, for example, don’t avoid dark films. They go 
because such stories resonate with their past and are deeply cathartic. 


In fact, down-ending films are often huge commercial suc¬ 
cesses: DANGEROUS LIAISONS, eighty million dollars; THE WAR 
OF THE ROSES, one hundred fifty million; THE ENGLISH 
PATIENT, two hundred twenty-five million. No one can count THE 
GODFATHER, PART IPs money. For the vast majority doesn’t care 
if a film ends up or down. What the audience wants is emotional satis¬ 
faction —a Climax that fulfills anticipation. How should THE GOD¬ 
FATHER, PART II end? Michael forgives Fredo, quits the mob, and 
moves to Boston with his family to sell insurance? The Climax of 
this magnificent film is truthful, beautiful, and very satisfying. 

Who determines which particular emotion will satisfy an audi¬ 
ence at the end of a film? The writer. From the way he tells his 
story from the beginning, he whispers to the audience: “Expect an 
up-ending” or “Expect a down-ending” or “Expect irony.” Having 
pledged a certain emotion, it’d be ruinous not to deliver. So we give 
the audience the experience we’ve promised, but not in the way it 
expects. This is what separates artist from amateur. 

In Aristotle's words, an ending must be both “inevitable and 
unexpected.” Inevitable in the sense that as the Inciting Incident 
occurs, everything and anything seems possible, but at Climax, as 
the audience looks back through the telling, it should seem that the 
path the telling took was the only path. Given the characters and 
their world as we’ve come to understand it, the Climax was 
inevitable and satisfying. But at the same time it must be unex¬ 
pected, happening in a way the audience could not have anticipated. 

Anyone can deliver a happy ending—just give the characters 
everything they want. Or a downer—just kill everybody. An artist 
gives us the emotion he’s promised . . . but with a rush of unex¬ 
pected insight that he’s withheld to a Turning Point within the 
Climax itself. So that as the protagonist improvises his final effort, 
he may or may not achieve his desire, but the flood of insight that 
pours from the gap delivers the hoped-for emotion but in a way we 
could never have foreseen. 

The Turning Point within the Climax of LOVE SERENADE is a 
recent and perfect example. This brilliant Gap hurls the audience 
back through the entire film to glimpse with shock and delight the 


maniacal truth that has been lurking beneath every scene. 

The key to a great film ending, as Francois Truffaut put it, is to 
create a combination of “Spectacle and Truth.” When Truffaut says 
“Spectacle,” he doesn’t mean explosive effects. He means a Climax 
written, not for the ear, but the eye. By “Truth” he means Control¬ 
ling Idea. In other words, Truffaut is asking us to create the Key 
Image of the film—a single image that sums up and concentrates 
all meaning and emotion. Like the coda of a symphony, the Key 
Image within the climactic action echoes and resonates all that has 
gone before. It is an image that is so tuned to the telling that when 
it’s remembered the whole film comes back with a jolt. 

GREED: McTeague collapsing into the desert, chained to the 
corpse he just killed. THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE: 
Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) dying as the wind blows his 
gold dust back into the mountains. LA DOLCE VITA: Rubini (Mar¬ 
cello Mastroianni) smiling good-bye to his ideal woman—an ideal, 
he realizes, that doesn't exist. THE CONVERSATION: The para¬ 
noid Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) gutting his apartment in search 
of a hidden microphone. THE SEVENTH SEAL: The Knight (Max 
von Sydow) leading his family into oblivion. THE KID: The Little 
Chap (Charlie Chaplin) taking the Kid (Jackie Coogan) by the hand 
to lead him to a happy future. SLING BLADE: Karl Childers (Billy 
Bob Thornton) staring in blood-chilling silence out of the window 
of the lunatic asylum. Key Images of this quality are rarely 


The Resolution, the fifth of the five-part structure, is any material 
left after Climax and has three possible uses. 

First, the logic of the telling may not provide an opportunity to 
climax a subplot before or during the Climax of the Central Plot, so 
it’ll need a scene of its own at the very end. This, however, can be 
awkward. The story's emotional heart is in the main plot. More¬ 
over, the audience will be leaning toward the exits, yet forced to sit 
through a scene of secondary interest. 


The problem can be solved, however. 

THE IN-LAWS: The daughter of Dr. Sheldon Kornpett (Alan 
Arkin) is engaged to be married to the son of Vince Ricardo (Peter 
Falk). Vince is a crazed CIA agent who virtually kidnaps Sheldon 
out of his dental office and carries him off on a mission to stop a 
lunatic dictator from destroying the international monetary system 
with counterfeit twenty-dollar bills. The Central Plot climaxes with 
Vince and Sheldon fending off a firing squad, bringing down the 
dictator, then secretly pocketing five million dollars each. 

But the marriage subplot has been left open. So writer Andrew 
Bergman cut from the firing squad to a Resolution scene outside 
the wedding. As the party waits impatiently, the fathers arrive by 
parachute, wearing tuxedos. Each gives his respective son and 
daughter a cash gift of $i million. Suddenly a car screeches up and 
an angry CIA agent gets out. Tension tightens. It looks as if the 
main plot is back and the fathers will be busted for stealing the ten 
million. The stern-faced CIA agent stalks up and is indeed angry. 
Why? Because he wasn't invited to the wedding. What’s more, he 
took up a collection at the office and has a fifty-dollar U.S. Savings 
Bond for bride and groom. The fathers accept his lavish gift and 
welcome him to the festivities. FADE OUT. 

Bergman tweaked the main plot in the Resolution. Imagine if it 
had ended in front of the firing squad, then cut to a garden wed¬ 
ding with happy families reunited. The scene would have dragged 
on as the audience squirmed in its seats. But by bringing the Cen¬ 
tral Plot back to life for just a moment, the screenwriter gave it a 
comic false twist, yoked his Resolution back to the body of the film, 
and held tension to the end. 

A second use of a Resolution is to show the spread of climactic 
effects. If a film expresses progressions by widening into society, 
its Climax may be restricted to the principal characters. The audi¬ 
ence, however, has come to know many supporting roles whose 
lives will be changed by the climactic action. This motivates a social 
event that satisfies our curiosity by bringing the entire cast to one 
location where the camera can track around to show us how these 
lives have been changed: the birthday party, the picnic at the beach, 


an Easter Egg hunt in STEEL MAGNOLIAS, a satiric title roll in 

Even if the first two uses don’t apply, all films need a Resolution 
as a courtesy to the audience. For if the Climax has moved the film- 
goers, if they’re laughing helplessly, riveted with terror, flushed with 
social outrage, wiping away tears, it’s rude suddenly to go black and 
roll the titles. This is the cue to leave, and they will attempt to do so 
jangling with emotion, stumbling over one another in the dark, 
dropping their car keys on the Pepsi-sticky floor. A film needs what 
the theatre calls a “slow curtain.” A line of description at the bottom 
of the last page that sends the camera slowly back or tracking along 
images for a few seconds, so the audience can catch its breath, 
gather its thoughts, and leave the cinema with dignity. 



The first draft of anything is shit. 
— Ernest Hemingway 



In my experience, the principle of antagonism is the most impor¬ 
tant and least understood precept in story design. Neglect of this 
fundamental concept is the primary reason screenplays and the 
films made from them fail. 

his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and 
emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism 
make them. 

Human nature is fundamentally conservative. We never do 
more than we have to, expend any energy we don’t have to, take 
any risks we don’t have to, change if we don’t have to. Why should 
we? Why do anything the hard way if we can get what we want the 
ease way? (The “easy way” is, of course, idiosyncratic and subjec¬ 
tive.) Therefore, what will cause a protagonist to become a fully 
realized, multidimensional, and deeply empathetic character? What 
will bring a dead screenplay to life? The answer to both questions 
lies on the negative side of the story. 

The more powerful and complex the forces of antagonism 
opposing the character, the more completely realized character and 
story must become. “Forces of antagonism” doesn’t necessarily refer to 
a specific antagonist or villain. In appropriate genres arch-villains, like 
the Terminator, are a delight, but by “forces of antagonism” we mean 



the sum total of all forces that oppose the character’s will and desire. 

If we study a protagonist at the moment of the Inciting Inci¬ 
dent and weigh the sum of his willpower along with his intellec¬ 
tual, emotional, social, and physical capacities against the total 
forces of antagonism from within his humanity, plus his personal 
conflicts, antagonistic institutions, and environment, we should 
see clearly that he’s an underdog. He has a chance to achieve what 
he wants—but only a chance. Although conflict from one aspect 
of his life may seem solvable, the totality of all levels should seem 
overwhelming as he begins his quest. 

We pour energy into the negative side of a story not only to 
bring the protagonist and other characters to full realization—roles 
to challenge and attract the world’s finest actors—but to take the 
story itself to the end of the line, to a brilliant and satisfying climax. 

Following this principle, imagine writing for a super-hero. 
How to turn Superman into an underdog? Kryptonite is a step in 
the right direction, but not nearly enough. Look at the ingenious 
design Mario Puzo created for the first SUPERMAN feature. 

Puzo pits Superman (Christopher Reeve) against Lex Luthor 
(Gene Hackman), who engineers a diabolical plot to launch two 
nuclear rockets simultaneously in opposite directions, one aimed at 
New Jersey, the other at California. Superman can’t be in two 
places at once, so he’ll have to make the lesser-of-two-evils choice: 
Which to save? New Jersey or California? He chooses New Jersey. 

The second rocket hits the San Andreas Fault and starts an 
earthquake that threatens to heave California into the ocean. 
Superman dives into the fault and fuses California back to the con¬ 
tinent through the friction of his own body. But... the earthquake 
kills Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). 

Superman kneels in tears. Suddenly, the visage of Jor-El 
(Marlon Brando) appears and says: “Thou shalt not interfere with 
human destiny.” A dilemma of irreconcilable goods: his father’s 
sacred rule versus the life of the woman he loves. He violates his 
father’s law, flies around the Earth, reverses the spin of the planet, 
turns back time, and resurrects Lois Lane—a happily-ever-after 
fantasy, taking Superman from underdog to a virtual god. 



Does your story contain negative forces of such power that the posi¬ 
tive side must gain surpassing quality? Below is a technique to 
guide your self-critique and answer that critical question. 

Begin by identifying the primary value at stake in your story. 
For example, Justice. Generally, the protagonist will represent the 
positive charge of this value; the forces of antagonism, the negative. 
Life, however, is subtle and complex, rarely a case of yes/no, 
good/evil, right/wrong. There are degrees of negativity. 

First, the Contradictory value, the direct opposite of the positive. 
In this case, Injustice. Laws have been broken. 




Between the Positive value and its Contradictory, however, is 
the Contrary: a situation that’s somewhat negative but not fully the 
opposite. The Contrary of justice is unfairness, a situation that’s 
negative but not necessarily illegal: nepotism, racism, bureaucratic 
delay, bias, inequities of all kinds. Perpetrators of unfairness may 
not break the law, but they're neither just nor fair. 




The Contradictory, however, is not the limit of human experi¬ 
ence. At the end of the line waits the Negation of the Negation, a 
force of antagonism that’s doubly negative. 


Our subject is life, not arithmetic. In life two negatives don’t 
make a positive. In English double negatives are ungrammatical, 
but Italian uses double and even triple negatives so that a state¬ 
ment feels like its meaning. In anguish an Italian might say, “Non 
ho niente mia!” (I don't have nothing never!). Italians know life. 
Double negatives turn positive only in math and formal logic. In 
life things just get worse and worse and worse. 

A story that progresses to the limit of human experi¬ 
ence in depth and breadth of conflict must move 
through a pattern that includes the Contrary, the Con¬ 
tradictory, and the Negation of the Negation. 

(The positive mirror image of this negative declension runs 
from Good to Better to Best to Perfect. But for mysterious reasons, 
working with this progression is of no help to the storyteller.) 

Negation of the Negation means a compound negative in 
which a life situation turns not just quantitatively but qualitatively 
worse. The Negation of the Negation is at the limit of the dark 
powers of human nature. In terms of justice, this state is tyranny. 
Or, in a phrase that applies to personal as well as social politics: 
“Might Makes Right.” 








Consider TV detective series: Do they go to the limit? The pro¬ 
tagonists of Spenser: For Hire, Quincy , Columbo, and Murder, She 
Wrote represent justice and struggle to preserve this ideal. First, 


they face unfairness: Bureaucrats won’t let Quincy do the autopsy, 
a politician pulls strings to get Columbo off the case, Spenser’s 
client lies to him. After struggling through gaps of expectation 
powered by forces of unfairness, the cop discovers true injustice: A 
crime has been committed. He defeats these forces and restores 
society to justice. The forces of antagonism in most crime dramas 
rarely reach beyond the Contradictory. 

Compare this pattern to MISSING, a fact-based film about 
American Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon), who searched Chile for a 
son who disappeared during a coup d'etat. In Act One he meets 
unfairness: The U.S. ambassador (Richard Venture) feeds him 
half-truths, hoping to dissuade his search. But Horman perseveres. 
At the Act Two Climax he uncovers a grievous injustice: The junta 
murdered his son . . . with the complicity of the U.S. State Depart¬ 
ment and the CIA. Horman then tries to right this wrong, but in 
Act Three he reaches the end of the line -—persecution without hope 
of retribution. 

Chile is in the grip of tyranny. The generals can make illegal on 
Tuesday what you did legally on Monday, arrest you for it on 
Wednesday, execute you on Thursday, and make it legal again 
Friday morning. Justice does not exist; the tyrant makes it up at his 
whim. MISSING is a searing revelation of the final limits of injus¬ 
tice . . . with irony: Although Horman couldn’t indict the tyrants in 
Chile, he exposed them onscreen in front of the world—which 
may be a sweeter kind of justice. 

The Black Comedy . . . AND JUSTICE FOR ALL goes one step 
further. It pursues justice full cycle back to the Positive. In Act One 
attorney Arthur Kirkland (Al Pacino) struggles against unfairness: 
the Baltimore Bar Association pressures him to inform against 
other lawyers while a cruel judge (John Forsythe) uses red tape to 
block the retrial of Kirkland’s innocent client. In Act Two he con¬ 
fronts injustice: The same judge is charged with brutally beating 
and raping a woman. 

But the judge has a scheme: It’s well known that the judge and 
attorney hate each other. Indeed, the lawyer recently punched the 
judge in public. So the judge will force this lawyer to represent him 


in court. When Kirkland appears to defend him, press and jury will 
perceive the judge as innocent, believing that no lawyer who hates 
a man would defend him unless he knew for certain that the 
accused was innocent, and is there on principle. The lawyer tries to 
escape this jam but hits the Negation of the Negation, a “legal” 
tyranny of high-court judges who blackmail him to represent their 
friend. If he doesn’t, they’ll expose a past indiscretion of his and 
have him disbarred. 

The lawyer, however, battles through unfairness, injustice, and 
tyranny by breaking the law: He steps in front of the jury and 
announces that his client “did it.” He knows that his client is the 
rapist, he says, because his client told him. He destroys the judge 
in public and wins justice for the victim. And although this stunt 
ends the lawyer’s career, justice now shines like a diamond, for it 
isn’t the momentary justice that comes when criminals are put 
behind bars, but the grand justice that brings down tyrants. 

The difference between the Contradictory and the Negation of 
the Negation of justice is the difference between the relatively lim¬ 
ited and temporary power of those who break the law versus the 
unlimited and enduring power of those who make the law. It’s the 
difference between a world where law exists and a world where 
might makes right. The absolute depth of injustice is not crimi¬ 
nality, but “legal” crimes committed by governments against their 
own citizens. 

Below are more examples to demonstrate how this declension 
works in other stories and genres. First, love: 






3 * 





To hate other people is bad enough, but even a misanthrope 
loves one person. When self-love vanishes and a character loathes his 
own being, he reaches the Negation of the Negation and existence 
becomes a living hell: Raskolnikov in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. 

A second variation: 







With whom would you rather have a relationship? With 
someone who hates you and honestly admits it, or with someone 
you know hates you but pretends to love you? This is what lifts 
ORDINARY PEOPLE and SHINE to the heights of Domestic 
Drama. Many parents hate their children, many children hate their 
parents, and they fight and scream and say it. In these fine films, 
although a parent bitterly resents and secretly hates his or her 
child, they pretend to love him. When the antagonist adds that lie, 
the story moves to the Negation of the Negation. How can a child 
defend himself against that? 


When the primary value is truth: 







White lies are the Contrary because they’re often told to do 
good: lovers waking up with pillow creases branded across their 
faces, telling each other how beautiful they look. The blatant liar 
knows the truth, then buries it to gain advantage. But when we 
lie to ourselves and believe it, truth vanishes and we’re at the 
Negation of the Negation: Blanche in A STREETCAR NAMED 

If the positive were Consciousness, being fully alive and aware: 







This is the declension of Horror films in which the antagonist 
is supernatural: DRACULA, ROSEMARY’S BABY. But we don’t 
have to be religious to grasp the meaning of damnation. Whether or 
not hell exists, this world provides its own Infernos, plights in 
which death would be a mercy and we’d beg for it. 


(Laurence Harvey) seems fully alive and aware. Then we learn that 
he's been brainwashed by posthypnotic suggestion, a form of 
unconsciousness. Under this power he commits a string of mur¬ 
ders, including that of his own wife, but does so with a degree of 
innocence, for he's a pawn in a vicious conspiracy. But when he 
recovers his mind and realizes what he’s done and what's been 
done to him, he’s taken down to hell. 

He learns he was brainwashed on the order of his incestuous, 
power-mad mother, who’s using him in a plot to seize control of 
the White House. Raymond could risk his life to expose his trai¬ 
torous mother or kill her. He chooses to kill, not only his mother 
but his stepfather and himself as well, damning the three at once 
in a shocking climax at the Negation of the Negation. 

If the positive were wealth: 









In WALL STREET Gekko feels impoverished because no 
amount of money is enough. A billionaire, he acts as if he were a 
starving thief, grasping for money at any illegal opportunity. 


If the positive were open communication between people: 






The Contrary has many varieties—silence, misunderstanding, 
emotional blocks. The all-inclusive term “alienation” means a situa¬ 
tion of being with people, but feeling cut off and unable to fully 
communicate. In isolation, however, there’s no one to talk to except 
yourself. When you lose this and suffer a loss of communication 
within your mind, you’re at the Negation of the Negation and 
insane: Trelkovsky in THE TENANT. 

Full achievement of ideals or goals: 








Compromise means “settling for less,” the willingness to fall 
short of your ideal but not surrender it completely. The Negation of 
the Negation, however, is something people in show business have 
to guard against. Thoughts such as: “I can’t make the fine films I’d 
like to make . . . but there’s money in pornography”: THE SWEET 








Ignorance is temporary stupidity due to a lack of information, 
but stupidity is resolute, no matter how much information is given. 
The Negation of the Negation cuts both ways: inwardly, when a 
stupid person believes he’s intelligent, a conceit of numerous 
comic characters, or outwardly, when society thinks a stupid 
person is intelligent: BEING THERE. 






Restraint has many shades. Laws bind us but make civilization 
possible, while imprisonment is fully negative, although society 
finds it useful. The Negation of the Negation works two ways. 
Inwardly: Self-enslavement is qualitatively worse than slavery. A 
slave has his free will and would do all he could to escape. But to 
corrode your willpower with drugs or alcohol and turn yourself into 






a slave is far worse. Outwardly: Slavery perceived as freedom impels 
the novel and films 1984. 







A courageous person can be temporarily stifled when fear 
strikes, but eventually he acts. The coward does not. The end of the 
line is reached, however, when a coward takes an action that out¬ 
wardly appears courageous: A battle rages around a foxhole. In it a 
wounded officer turns to a coward and says: “Jack, your buddies are 
running out of ammo. Take these boxes of shells through the 
minefield or they’ll be overrun.” So the coward takes out his gun 
. . . and shoots the officer. At first glance we might think it would 
take courage to shoot an officer, but we’d soon realize that this was 
an act at the sheer limit of cowardice. 

In COMING HOME Captain Boy Hyde (Bruce Dern) shoots 
himself in the leg to get out of Vietnam. Later, at the Crisis of his 
subplot Hyde faces the lesser of two evils: life with its humilia¬ 
tion and pain versus death with its dread of the unknown. He 
takes the easier path and drowns himself. Although some sui¬ 
cides are courageous, such as those of political prisoners on a 
hunger strike, in most cases the suicide reaches the end of the line 
and takes an action that may appear brave but lacks the courage 
to live. 









Contrary: A married woman falls in love with another man, but 
doesn’t act on it. Secretly, she feels loyalty to both men, but when 
her husband learns of it, he sees her split allegiance as a betrayal. 
She defends herself, arguing that she didn’t sleep with the other 
man, so she was never disloyal. The difference between feeling and 
action is often subjective. 

In the mid-nineteenth century the Ottoman Empire was losing 
its grip on Cyprus and the island was soon to fall to British rule. In 
PASCALI’S ISLAND, Pascali (Ben Kingsley) spies for the Turkish 
government, but he’s a frightened man whose bland reports go 
unread. This lonely soul is befriended by a British couple (Charles 
Dance and Helen Mirren) who offer him a happier life in England. 
They’re the only people who have ever taken Pascali seriously, and 
he’s drawn to them. Although they claim to be archaeologists, in 
time he suspects they’re British spies (split allegiance) and betrays 
them. Only when they’re killed does he discover they were antiq¬ 
uity thieves after an ancient statue. His betrayal tragically betrays 
his own hopes and dreams. 









At the Inciting Incident of BIG the adolescent Josh Baskin 
(David Moscow) is transformed into what appears to be a thirty- 
two-year-old man (Tom Hanks). The film jumps immediately to 
the Negation of the Negation, then explores the grays and blacks of 
negativity. When Josh and his boss (Robert Loggia) tap dance on a 
toy piano at F.A.O. Schwartz, this is childish, but more positive 
than negative. When Josh and his coworker (John Heard) play 
“keep away” on the handball court, this is perfectly childish. In fact, 
we come to realize that the whole adult world is a playground full 
of children playing corporate “keep away.” 

At the Crisis Josh faces irreconcilable goods: an adult life with a 
fulfilling career and the woman he loves versus a return to adoles¬ 
cence. He makes the mature choice to have his childhood, 
expressing with a fine irony that he has at last become “big.” For he 
and we sense that the key to maturity is to have had a complete 
childhood. But because life has short-changed so many of us in 
youth, we live, to one degree or another, at the Negation of the 
Negation of maturity. BIG is a very wise film. 

Lastly, consider a story in which the positive value is sanctioned 
natural sex. Sanctioned meaning condoned by society; natural 
meaning sex for procreation, attendant pleasure, and an expression 
of love. 

Under the Contrary falls acts of extramarital and premarital sex 
that, although natural, are frowned on. Society often does more 






- ► _ 






than frown on prostitution, but it’s arguably natural. Bigamy, 
polygamy, polyandry, and interracial and common-law marriage 
are condoned in some societies, unsanctioned in others. Chastity is 
arguably unnatural, but no one’s going to stop you from being celi¬ 
bate, while sex with someone who has taken a vow of celibacy, such 
as a priest or a nun, is frowned on by the Church. 

Under the Contradictory, humanity seems to know no limit of 
invention: voyeurism, pornography, satyriasis, nymphomania, 
fetishism, exhibitionism, frottage, transvestism, incest, rape, 
pedophilia, and sadomasochism, to name only a few acts that are 
unsanctioned and unnatural. 

Homosexuality and bisexuality are difficult to place. In some soci¬ 
eties they’re thought natural, in others, unnatural. In many Western 
countries homosexuality is sanctioned; in some Third World countries 
it’s still a hanging offense. Many of these designations may seem arbi¬ 
trary, for sex is relative to social and personal perception. 

But common perversions are not the end of the line. They’re 
singular and committed, even with violence, with another human 
being. When, however, the sexual object is from another species— 
bestiality—or dead—necrophilia—or when compounds of perver¬ 
sities pile up, the mind revolts. 

CHINATOWN: The end of the line of sanctioned natural sex is 
not incest. It's only a Contradictory. In this film the Negation of the 
Negation is incest with the offspring of your own incest. This is 
why Evelyn Mulwray risks her life to keep her child from her 


father. She knows he’s mad and will do it again. This is the motiva¬ 
tion for the murder. Cross killed his son-in-law because Mulwray 
wouldn’t tell him where his daughter by his daughter was hiding. 
This is what will happen after the Climax as Cross covers the terri¬ 
fied child’s eyes and pulls her away from her mother's horrific 

The principle of the Negation of the Negation applies not only 
to the tragic but to the comic. The comic world is a chaotic, wild 
place where actions must go to the limit. If not, the laughs falls flat. 
Even the light entertainment of Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers films 
touched the end of the line. They turned on the value of truth as 
Fred Astaire traditionally played a character suffering from self- 
deception, telling himself he was in love with the glitzy girl when 
we knew that his heart really belonged to Ginger. 

Fine writers have always understood that opposite values are 
not the limit of human experience. If a story stops at the Contradic¬ 
tory value, or worse, the Contrary, it echoes the hundreds of medi¬ 
ocrities we suffer every year. For a story that is simply about 
love/hate, truth/lie, freedom/slavery, courage/cowardice, and the 
like is almost certain to be trivial. If a story does not reach the 
Negation of the Negation, it may strike the audience as satisfying— 
but never brilliant, never sublime. 

All other factors of talent, craft, and knowledge being equal, great¬ 
ness is found in the writer’s treatment of the negative side. 

If your story seems unsatisfying and lacking in some way, tools 
are needed to penetrate its confusions and perceive its flaws. When 
a story is weak, the inevitable cause is that forces of antagonism are 
weak. Rather than spending your creativity trying to invent likable, 
attractive aspects of protagonist and world, build the negative side 
to create a chain reaction that pays off naturally and honestly on the 
positive dimensions. 

The first step is to question the values at stake and their pro¬ 
gression. What are the positive values? Which is preeminent and 
turns the Story Climax? Do the forces of antagonism explore all 
shades of negativity? Do they reach the power of the Negation of 
the Negation at some point? 


Generally, progressions run from the Positive to the Contrary 
in Act One, to the Contradictory in later acts, and finally to the 
Negation of the Negation in the last act, either ending tragically or 
going back to the Positive with a profound difference. BIG, on the 
other hand, leaps to the Negation of the Negation, then illuminates 
all degrees of immaturity. CASABLANCA is even more radical. It 
opens at the Negation of the Negation with Rick living in fascist 
tyranny, suffering self-hatred and self-deception, then works to a 
positive climax for all three values. Anything is possible, but the end 
of the line must be reached. 



Exposition means facts—the information about setting, biography, 
and characterization that the audience needs to know to follow and 
comprehend the events of the story. 

Within the first pages of a screenplay a reader can judge the 
relative skill of the writer simply by noting how he handles exposi¬ 
tion. Well-done exposition doesn’t guarantee a superb story, but it 
does tell us that the writer knows the craft. Skill in exposition 
means making it invisible. As the story progresses, the audience 
absorbs all it needs to know effortlessly, even unconsciously. 

The famous axiom “Show, don’t tell” is the key. Never force 
words into a character's mouth to tell the audience about world, 
history, or person. Rather, show us honest, natural scenes in which 
human beings talk and behave in honest, natural ways ... yet at 
the same time indirectly pass along the necessary facts. In other 
words, dramatize exposition. 

Dramatized exposition serves two ends: Its primary purpose is 
to further the immediate conflict. Its secondary purpose is to 
convey information. The anxious novice reverses that order, 
putting expositional duty ahead of dramatic necessity. 

For example: Jack says, “Harry, how the hell long have we 
known one another? What? About twenty years, huh? Ever since we 
were at college together. That’s a long time, isn’t it, Harry? Well, 
how the hell are ya this morning?" Those lines have no purpose 


except to tell the eavesdropping audience that Jack and Harry are 
friends, went to school together twenty years ago, and they haven’t 
had lunch yet—a deadly beat of unnatural behavior. No one ever 
tells someone something they both already know unless saying the 
obvious fills another and compelling need. Therefore, if this infor¬ 
mation is needed, the writer must create a motivation for the dia¬ 
logue that’s greater than the facts. 

To dramatize exposition apply this mnemonic principle: Con¬ 
vert exposition to ammunition. Your characters know their world, 
their history, each other, and themselves. Let them use what they 
know as ammunition in their struggle to get what they want. Con¬ 
verting the above to ammunition: Jack, reacting to Harry’s stifled 
yawn and bloodshot eyes, says, “Harry, look at you. The same 
hippie haircut, still stoned by noon, the same juvenile stunts that 
got you kicked out of school twenty years ago. Are you ever gonna 
wake up and smell the coffee?" The audience’s eye jumps across 
the screen to see Harry’s reaction and indirectly hears “twenty 
years” and “school.” 

“Show, don’t tell,” by the way, doesn’t mean that it’s all right to 
pan the camera down a mantelpiece on a series of photographs that 
take Harry and Jack from their university days to boot camp to the 
double wedding to opening their dry cleaning business. That’s 
telling, not showing. Asking the camera to do it turns a feature film 
into a home movie. “Show, don’t tell” means that characters and 
camera behave truthfully. 

Dealing with the knotty problems of exposition so intimidates 
some writers that they try to get it all out of the way as soon as pos¬ 
sible, so the studio script analyst can concentrate on their stories. 
But when forced to wade through an Act One stuffed with exposi¬ 
tion, the reader realizes that this is an amateur who can’t handle 
the basic craft, and skims to the last scenes. 

Confident writers parse out exposition, bit by bit, through the 
entire story, often revealing exposition well into the Climax of the 
last act. They follow these two principles: Never include anything 
the audience can reasonably and easily assume has happened. 
Never pass on exposition unless the missing fact would cause con- 


fusion. You do not keep the audience’s interest by giving it infor¬ 
mation, but by withholding information, except that which is 
absolutely necessary for comprehension. 

Pace the exposition. Like all else, exposition must have a pro¬ 
gressive pattern: Therefore, the least important facts come in early, 
the next most important later, the critical facts last. And what are 
the critical pieces of exposition? Secrets. The painful truths charac¬ 
ters do not want known. 

In other words, don’t write “California scenes.” “California 
scenes” are scenes in which two characters who hardly know each 
other sit down over coffee and immediately begin an intimate discus¬ 
sion of the deep, dark secrets of their lives: “Oh, I had a rotten child¬ 
hood. To punish me my mother used to flush my head in the toilet.” 
“Huh! You think you had a bad childhood. To punish me my father 
put dog shit in my shoes and made me to go to school like that.” 

Unguardedly honest and painful confessions between people 
who have just met are forced and false. When this is pointed out to 
writers, they will argue that it actually happens, that people share 
very personal things with total strangers. And I agree. But only in 
California. Not in Arizona, New York, London, Paris, or anywhere 
else in the world. 

A certain breed of West Coaster carries around prepared deep 
dark secrets to share with one another at cocktail parties to validate 
themselves one to the other as authentic Californians—“centered” 
and “in touch with their inner beings.” When I’m standing over the 
tortilla dip at such parties and somebody tells me about dog shit in 
his Keds as a child, my thought is: “Wow! If that’s the prepared 
deep dark secret he tells people over the guacamole, what’s the real 
stuff?” For there’s always something else. Whatever is said hides 
what cannot be said. 

Evelyn Mulwray’s confession, “She’s my sister and my 
daughter” is nothing she would share over cocktails. She tells 
Gittes this to keep her child out of her father’s hands. “You can’t 
kill me, Luke, I’m your father” is a truth Darth Vader never wanted 
to tell his son, but if he doesn’t, he’ll have to kill or be killed by his 


These are honest and powerful moments because the pressure of 
life is squeezing these characters between the lesser of two evils. And 
where in a well-crafted story is pressure the greatest? At the end of the 
line. The wise writer, therefore, obeys the first principle of temporal 
art: Save the best for last. For if we reveal too much too soon, the audi¬ 
ence will see the climaxes coming long before they arrive. 

Reveal only that exposition the audience absolutely needs and wants 
to know and no more. 

On the other hand, since the writer controls the telling, he con¬ 
trols the need and desire to know. If at a certain point in the telling, 
a piece of exposition must be known or the audience wouldn’t be 
able to follow, create the desire to know by arousing curiosity. Put 
the question “Why?” in the filmgoer's mind. “Why is this character 
behaving this way? Why doesn't this or that happen? Why?” With a 
hunger for information, even the most complicated set of drama¬ 
tized facts will pass smoothly into understanding. 

One way to cope with biographical exposition is to start the 
telling in the protagonist’s childhood and then work through all the 
decades of his life. THE LAST EMPEROR, for example, covers over 
sixty years in the life of Pu Yi (John Lone). The story strings 
together scenes from his infancy when he’s made Emperor of 
China, his teenage years and youthful marriage, his Western edu¬ 
cation, his fall into decadence, his years as a Japanese stooge, life 
under the Communists, and his last days as a laborer in Peking's 
Botanical Gardens. LITTLE BIG MAN spans a century. CARNAL 
start in youth and leapfrog through the key events of the protago¬ 
nists’ lives into middle age or beyond. 

However, as convenient as that design may be in terms of expo¬ 
sition, the vast majority of protagonists cannot be followed from 
birth to death for this reason: Their story would have no Spine. To 
tell a story that spans a lifetime a Spine of enormous power and 
persistence must be created. But for most characters, what single, 
deep desire, aroused out of an Inciting Incident in childhood, 
would go unquenched for decades? This is why nearly all tellings 
pursue the protagonist’s Spine over months, weeks, even hours. 


If, however, an elastic, endurable Spine can be created, then a 
story can be told over decades without being episodic. Episodic 
does not mean “covering long stretches of time” but rather “spo¬ 
radic, irregular intervals.” A story told over twenty-four hours could 
well be episodic if everything that happens in that day is uncon¬ 
nected to everything else that happens. On the other hand, LITTLE 
BIG MAN is unified around a man's quest to prevent the genocide 
of Native Americans by the whites—an atrocity that spanned gen¬ 
erations, therefore a century of storytelling. CARNAL KNOWL¬ 
EDGE is driven by a man’s blind need to humiliate and destroy 
women, a soul-poisoning desire he never fathoms. 

In THE LAST EMPEROR a man spends his life trying to 
answer the question: Who am I? At age three Pu Yi is made 
Emperor but has no idea what that means. To him a palace is a 
playground. He clings to his childhood identity until as a teenager 
he’s still nursing from the breast. The Imperial officials insist he 
act like an emperor, but he then discovers there is no empire. Bur¬ 
dened with a false identity, he tries on one personality after another 
but none fit: first English scholar and gentleman; then sex athlete 
and hedonist; later international bon vivant doing Sinatra imita¬ 
tions at posh parties; next a statesman, only to end up a puppet to 
the Japanese. Finally, the Communists give him his last identity— 

FAREWELL, MY CONCUBINE tells of Dieyi’s (Leslie Cheung) 
fifty-year quest to live in the truth. When he is a child, the masters 
of the Peking Opera ruthlessly beat, brainwash, and force him to 
confess that he has a female nature—when he does not. If he did, 
torture wouldn’t be necessary. He’s effeminate, but like many 
effeminate men he is at heart male. So, forced to live a lie, he hates 
all lies, personal and political. From that point on all the conflicts 
in the story stem from his desire to speak the truth. But in China 
only liars survive. Finally realizing that truth is an impossibility, he 
takes his own life. 

Because lifelong Spines are rare, we take Aristotle’s advice to 
begin stories in medias res, “in the midst of things.” After locating 
the date of the climactic event of the protagonist’s life, we begin 


as close in time to it as possible. This design compresses the 
telling’s duration, and lengthens the character’s biography before 
the Inciting Incident. For example, if the Climax occurs on the 
day a character turns thirty-five, instead of starting the film when 
he’s a teenager, we open the film perhaps a month before his 
birthday. This gives the protagonist thirty-five years of living to 
build the maximum value into his existence. As a result, when his 
life goes out of balance, he is now at risk and the story is filled 
with conflict. 

Consider, for example, the difficulties of writing a story about a 
homeless alcoholic. What has he to lose? Virtually nothing. To a 
soul enduring the unspeakable stress of the streets, death may be a 
mercy, and a change in the weather might give him that. Lives with 
little or no value beyond their existence are pathetic to witness, but 
with so little at stake, the writer is reduced to painting a static por¬ 
trait of suffering. 

Rather, we tell stories about people who have something to 
lose—family, careers, ideals, opportunities, reputations, realistic 
hopes and dreams. When such lives go out of balance, the charac¬ 
ters are placed at jeopardy. They stand to lose what they have in 
their struggle to achieve a rebalancing of existence. Their battle, 
risking hard-won values against the forces of antagonism, gener¬ 
ates conflict. And when story is thick with conflict, the characters 
need all the ammunition they can get. As a result, the writer has 
little trouble dramatizing exposition and facts flow naturally and 
invisibly into the action. But when stories lack conflict, the writer is 
forced into “table dusting." 

Here, for example, is how many playwrights of the nineteenth 
century handled exposition: The curtain comes up on a living room 
set. Enter two domestics: One who’s worked there for the last thirty 
years, the other the young maid just hired that morning. The older 
maid turns to the newcomer and says, “Oh, you don’t know about 
Dr. Johnson and his family, do you? Well, let me tell you . . .” And 
as they dust the furniture the older maid lays out the entire life his¬ 
tory, world, and characterizations of the Johnson family. That’s 
“table dusting," unmotivated exposition. 


And we still see it today. 

OUTBREAK: In the opening sequence, Colonel Daniels 
(Dustin Hoffman) flies to West Africa to halt an outbreak of the 
Ebola virus. On board is a young medical assistant. Daniels turns 
to him and says, in effect, “You don’t know about Ebola, do you?” 
and lays out the pathology of the virus. If the young assistant is 
untrained to fight a disease that threatens all human life on the 
planet, what’s he doing on this mission? Any time you find your¬ 
self writing a line of dialogue in which one character is telling 
another something that they both already know or should know, 
ask yourself, is it dramatized? Is it exposition as ammunition? If 
not, cut it. 

If you can thoroughly dramatize exposition and make it invis¬ 
ible, if you can control its disclosure, parsing it out only when and 
if the audience needs and wants to know it, saving the best for last, 
you’re learning your craft. But what’s a problem for beginning 
writers becomes an invaluable asset to those who know the craft. 
Rather than avoiding exposition by giving their characters an 
anonymous past, they go out of their way to salt their biographies 
with significant events. Because what is the challenge that the sto¬ 
ryteller faces dozens of times over in the telling? How to turn the 
scene. How to create Turning Points. 


We can turn scenes only one of two ways: on action or on revelation. 
There are no other means. If, for example, we have a couple in a posi¬ 
tive relationship, in love and together, and want to turn it to the 
negative, in hate and apart, we could do it on action: She slaps him 
across the face and says, “I’m not taking this anymore. It’s over.” 
Or on revelation: He looks at her and says, “I’ve been having an 
affair with your sister for the last three years. What are you going to 
do about it?” 

Powerful revelations come from the BACKSTORY—pre¬ 
vious significant events in the lives of the characters 


that the writer can reveal at critical moments to create 
Turning Points. 

CHINATOWN: “She’s my sister and my daughter” is exposi¬ 
tion, saved to create a stunning revelation that turns the second act 
Climax and sets up a spiraling Act Three. THE EMPIRE STRIKES 
BACK: “You can’t kill me, Luke, I’m your father” is exposition 
from the Backstory of STAR WARS saved to create the greatest pos¬ 
sible effect, to turn the Climax and set up an entire new film, 

Robert Towne could have exposed the Cross family incest early 
in CHINATOWN by having Gittes unearth this fact from a disloyal 
servant. George Lucas could have exposed Luke’s paternity by 
having C3PO warn R2D2, “Don’t tell Luke, he’d really be upset to 
hear this, but Darth's his dad.” Rather, they used Backstory exposi¬ 
tion to create explosive Turning Points that open the gap between 
expectation and result, and deliver a rush of insight. With few 
exceptions, scenes cannot be turned on nothing but action, action, 
action. Inevitably we need a mix of action and revelation. Revela¬ 
tions, in fact, tend to have more impact, and so we often reserve 
them for the major Turning Points, act climaxes. 


Th e flashback is simply another form of exposition. Like all else, it’s 
done either well or ill. In other words, rather than boring the audi¬ 
ence with long, unmotivated, exposition-filled dialogue passages, 
we could bore it with unwanted, dull, fact-filled flashbacks. Or we 
do it well. A flashback can work wonders if we follow the fine prin¬ 
ciples of conventional exposition. 

First, dramatize flashbacks. 

Rather than flashing back to flat scenes in the past, interpolate 
a minidrama into the story with its own Inciting Incident, progres¬ 
sions, and Turning Point. Although producers often claim that 


flashbacks slow a film's pace, and indeed badly done they do, a 
well-done flashback actually accelerates pace. 

CASABLANCA: The Paris Flashback comes at the opening of 
Act Two. Rick is crying in his whiskey, drunk and depressed, the 
film's rhythm deliberately retarding to relieve the tension of the Act 
One Climax. But as Rick remembers his affair with lisa, the flash¬ 
back to the tale of their love affair while the Nazis invade Paris 
sweeps the film into an ever swifter pace that peaks around a 
sequence Climax as lisa runs out on Rick. 

RESERVOIR DOGS: The Inciting Incident of a Murder Mystery 
combines two events: A murder is committed; the protagonist dis¬ 
covers the crime. Agatha Christie, however, opens her stories with 
only the second half—a closet door opens and a body falls out. By 
starting with the discovery of the crime, she arouses curiosity in 
two directions: Into the past, how and why was the murder com¬ 
mitted? Into the future, which of the many suspects did it? 

Tarantino’s design simply reworks Agatha Christie. After intro¬ 
ducing his characters, Tarantino launched the film by skipping 
over the first half of the Inciting Incident—the botched heist—and 
cut immediately to the second half—the getaway. With one of the 
thieves wounded in the backseat of the getaway car we instantly 
realize the robbery has gone bad and our curiosity runs into the 
past and future. What went wrong? How will it turn out? Having 
created the need and desire to know both answers, whenever pace 
in the warehouse scenes flagged, Tarantino flashed back to the 
high-speed action of the heist. A simple idea, but no one had ever 
done it with such daring, and what could have been a less than 
energetic film had solid pace. 

Second, do not bring in a flashback until you have cre¬ 
ated in the audience the need and desire to know. 

CASABLANCA: The Act One Climax is also the Central Plot’s 
Inciting Incident as lisa suddenly reappears in Rick’s life and they 
share a powerful exchange of looks over Sam’s piano. There follows 
a scene of cocktail chat, double entendres, and subtext that hint at a 


past relationship and a passion still very much alive. As Act Two 
opens, the audience is burning with curiosity, wondering what 
went on between these two in Paris. Then and only then, when the 
audience needs and wants to know, do the writers flash back. 

We must realize that a screenplay is not a novel. Novelists can 
directly invade the thoughts and feelings of characters. We cannot. 
Novelists, therefore, can indulge the luxury of free association. We 
cannot. The prose writer can, if he wishes, walk a character past a 
shop window, have him look inside and remember his entire child¬ 
hood: “He was walking through his hometown that afternoon when 
he glanced over at the barbershop and remembered the days when 
his father would take him there as a boy and he'd sit among the old- 
timers as they smoked cigars and talked about baseball. It was there 
that he first heard the word ‘sex' and ever since he's unable to sleep 
with a woman without thinking he was hitting a home run.” 

Exposition in prose is relatively easy, but the camera is an X-ray 
machine for all things false. If we try to force exposition into a film 
through novel-like free associative editing or semisubliminal flutter 
cuts that “glimpse” a character's thoughts, it strikes us as contrived. 


The Dream Sequence is exposition in a ball gown. Everything said 
above applies doubly to these usually feeble efforts to disguise 
information in Freudian cliches. One of the few effective uses of a 
dream opens Ingmar Bergman's WILD STRAWBERRIES. 


In the American use of this term, a montage is a series of rapidly 
cut images that radically condenses or expands time and often 
employs optical effects such as wipes, irises, split screens, dis¬ 
solves, or other multiple images. The high energy of such 
sequences is used to mask their purpose: the rather mundane task 
of conveying information. Like the Dream Sequence, the montage 


is an effort to make undramatized exposition less boring by 
keeping the audience’s eye busy. With few exceptions, montages 
are a lazy attempt to substitute decorative photography and editing 
for dramatization and are, therefore, to be avoided. 


Voice-over narration is yet another way to divulge exposition. Like 
the Flashback, it’s done well or ill. The test of narration is this: Ask 
yourself, “If I were to strip the voice-over out of my screenplay, 
would the story still be well told?” If the answer is yes . . . keep it 
in. Generally, the principle “Less is more" applies: the more eco¬ 
nomical the technique, the more impact it has. Therefore, anything 
that can be cut should be cut. There are, however, exceptions. If 
narration can be removed and the story still stands on its feet well 
told, then you’ve probably used narration for the only good 
reason—as counterpoint. 

Counterpoint narration is Woody Allen’s great gift. If we were 
to cut the voice-over from HANNAH AND HER SISTERS or HUS¬ 
BANDS AND WIVES his stories would still be lucid and effective. 
But why would we? His narration offers wit, ironies, and insights 
that can’t be done any other way. Voice-over to add nonnarrative 
counterpoint can be delightful. 

Occasionally, brief telling narration, especially at the opening 
or during transitions between acts, such as in BARRY LYNDON, is 
inoffensive, but the trend toward using telling narration throughout a 
film threatens the fixture of our art. More and more films by some of 
the finest directors from Hollywood and Europe indulge in this 
indolent practice. They saturate the screen with lush photography 
and lavish production values, then tie images together with a voice 
droning on the soundtrack, turning the cinema into what was once 
known as Classic Comic Books. 

Many of us were first exposed to the works of major writers 
by reading Classic Comics, novels in cartoon images with captions 
that told the story. That’s fine for children, but it’s not cinema. 
The art of cinema connects Image A via editing, camera, or lens 


movement with Image B, and the effect is meanings C, D, and E, 
expressed without explanation. Recently, film after film slides a 
steady-cam through rooms and corridors, up and down streets, 
panning sets and cast while a narrator talks, talks, talks voice¬ 
over, telling us about a character’s upbringing, or his dreams and 
fears, or explaining the politics of the story’s society—until the 
film becomes little more than multimillion-dollar books-on-tape, 

It takes little talent and less effort to fill a soundtrack with 
explanation. “Show, don’t tell” is a call for artistry and discipline, a 
warning to us not to give in to laziness but to set creative limitations 
that demand the fullest use of imagination and sweat. Dramatizing 
every turn into a natural, seamless flow of scenes is hard work, but 
when we allow ourselves the comfort of “on the nose” narration we 
gut our creativity, eliminate the audience’s curiosity, and destroy 
narrative drive. 

More importantly, “Show, don't tell” means respect the intelli¬ 
gence and sensitivity of your audience. Invite them to bring their 
best selves to the ritual, to watch, think, feel, and draw their own 
conclusions. Do not put them on your knee as if they were children 
and “explain” life, for the misuse and overuse of narration is not 
only slack, it’s patronizing. And if the trend toward it continues, 
cinema will degrade into adulterated novels and our art will shrivel. 

To study the skillful design of exposition, I suggest a close 
analysis of JFK. Obtain Oliver Stone’s screenplay and/or the video 
and break the film down, scene by scene, listing all the facts, indis¬ 
putable or alleged, it contains. Then note how Stone splintered this 
Mount Everest of information into its vital pieces, dramatized each 
bit, pacing the progression of revelations. It is a masterpiece of 



This chapter examines eight enduring problems, from how to hold 
interest, to how to adapt from other media, to how to cope with 
holes in logic. For each problem the craft provides solutions. 


Marketing may entice an audience into the theatre, but once the 
ritual begins, it needs compelling reasons to stay involved. A story 
must capture interest, hold it unswervingly through time, then 
reward it at Climax. This task is next to impossible unless the 
design attracts both sides of human nature—intellect and emotion. 

Curiosity is the intellectual need to answer questions and close 
open patterns. Story plays to this universal desire by doing the 
opposite, posing questions and opening situations. Each Turning 
Point hooks curiosity. As the protagonist is put at increasingly 
greater risk, the audience wonders, “What’s going to happen next? 
And after that?” And above all, “How will it turn out?” The answer 
to this will not arrive until the last act Climax, and so the audience, 
held by curiosity, stays put. Think of all the bad films you’ve sat 
through for no other reason than to get the answer to that nagging 
question. We may make the audience cry or laugh, but above all, as 
Charles Reade noted, we make it wait. 

Concern, on the other hand, is the emotional need for the posi¬ 
tive values of life: justice, strength, survival, love, truth, courage. 



Human nature is instinctively repelled by what it perceives as nega¬ 
tive, while drawn powerfully toward positive. 

As a story opens, the audience, consciously or instinctively, 
inspects the value-charged landscape of world and characters, 
trying to separate good from evil, right from wrong, things of value 
from things of no value. It seeks the Center of Good. Once finding 
this core, emotions flow to it. 

The reason we search for the Center of Good is that each of us 
believes that we are good or right and want to identify with the pos¬ 
itive. Deep inside we know we're flawed, perhaps seriously so, even 
criminal, but somehow we feel that despite that, our heart is in the 
right place. The worst of people believe themselves good. Hitler 
thought he was the savior of Europe. 

I once joined a gym in Manhattan not knowing it was a mafia 
hangout and met an amusing, likable guy whose nickname was 
Mr. Coney Island, a title he’d won as a bodybuilder in his teens. 
Now, however, he was a “button man.” “To button up” means to 
shut up. A button man “puts the button on” or shuts people up . . . 
forever. One day in the steam room he sat down and said, “Hey, 
Bob, tell me something. Are you one of the ‘good’ people?” In other 
words, did I belong to the mob? 

Mafia logic runs like this: “People want prostitution, narcotics, 
and illicit gambling. When they’re in trouble, they want to bribe 
police and judges. They want to taste the fruits of crime, but they’re 
lying hypocrites and won’t admit it. We provide these services but 
we’re not hypocrites. We deal in realities. We are the ‘good’ 
people.” Mr. Coney Island was a conscienceless assassin, but inside 
he was convinced he was good. 

No matter who’s in the audience, each seeks the Center of Good, 
the positive focus for empathy and emotional interest. 

At the very least the Center of Good must be located in the pro¬ 
tagonist. Others may share it, for we can empathize with any 
number of characters, but we must empathize with the protagonist. 
On the other hand, the Center of Good doesn’t imply “niceness.” 
“Good” is defined as much by what it’s not as by what it is. From 
the audience’s point of view, “good” is a judgment made in rela- 


tionship to or against a background of negativity, a universe that’s 
thought or felt to be “not good.” 

THE GODFATHER; Not only is the Corleone family corrupt, 
but so too are the other mafia families, even the police and judges. 
Everyone in this film is a criminal or related to one. But the Cor- 
leones have one positive quality—loyalty. In other mob clans gang¬ 
sters stab one another in the back. That makes them the bad bad 
guys. The loyalty of the Godfather’s family makes them the good 
bad guys. When we spot this positive quality, our emotions move 
toward it and we find ourselves in empathy with gangsters. 

How far can we take the Center of Good? With what kind of 
monsters will an audience empathize? 

WHITE HEAT; Cody Jarrett (James Cagney), the film’s Center 
of Good, is a psychopathic killer. But the writers design a masterful 
balancing act of negative/positive energies by first giving Jarrett 
attractive qualities, then landscaping around him a grim, fatalistic 
world: His is a gang of weak-willed yes-men, but he has leadership 
capacities. He’s pursued by an FBI squad of lackluster dullards, 
whereas he’s witty and imaginative. His “best friend” is an FBI 
informant, while Cody's friendship is genuine. No one shows affec¬ 
tion for anyone in this film, except Cody, who adores his mother. 
This moral management draws the audience into empathy, feeling, 
"If I had to lead a life of crime, I’d want to be like Cody Jarrett.” 

THE NIGHT PORTER: In a Backstory of dramatized flash¬ 
backs, protagonists and lovers (Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Ram¬ 
pling) met in this fashion: He was the sadistic commandant of a 
Nazi death camp, she a teenage prisoner of masochistic nature. 
Their passionate affair lasted for years inside the death camp. With 
the war’s end, they went their separate ways. The film opens in 
1957 as they eye each other in the lobby of a Viennese hotel. He’s 
now a hotel porter, she a guest traveling with her concert pianist 
husband. Once up in their room she tells her husband she’s ill, 
sends him on ahead to his concert, then stays behind to resume 
her affair with her former lover. This couple is the Center of Good. 

Writer/director Liliana Cavani manages this feat by encircling 
the lovers with a depraved society of malevolent SS officers in 


hiding. Then she lights one little candle to blaze at the heart of this 
cold, dark world: Despite how the lovers met and the nature of 
their passion, in the deepest and truest sense, their love is real. 
What’s more, it’s tested to the limit. When SS officers tell their 
friend he must kill the woman because she may expose them, he 
replies, “No, she’s my baby, she’s my baby.” He’d sacrifice his life 
for his lover and she for him. We feel a tragic loss when at Climax 
they choose to die together. 

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: The writers of novel and screen¬ 
play place Clarice (Jodie Foster) at the positive focal point, but also 
shape a second Center of Good around Hannibal Lecter (Anthony 
Hopkins) and draw empathy to both. First, they assign Dr. Lecter 
admirable and desirable qualities: massive intelligence, a sharp wit 
and sense of irony, gentlemanly charm, and most importantly, 
calmness. How, we wondered, could someone who lives in such a 
hellish world remain so poised and polite? 

Next, to counterpoint these qualities the writers surround Lecter 
with a brutish, cynical society. His prison psychiatrist is a sadist and 
publicity hound. His guards are dimwits. Even the FBI, which wants 
Lecter’s help on a baffling case, lies to him, trying to manipulate him 
with false promises of an open-air prison on a Carolina island. Soon 
we’re rationalizing: “So he eats people. There are worse things. Off¬ 
hand I can’t think what, but. . . We fall into empathy, musing, "If I 
were a cannibalistic psychopath, I'd want to be just like Lecter.” 

Mystery, Suspense, Dramatic Irony 

Curiosity and Concern create three possible ways to connect the 
audience to the story: Mystery, Suspense, and Dramatic Irony. These 
terms are not to be mistaken for genres; they name story/audience 
relationships that vary according to how we hold interest. 

In Mystery the audience knows less than the characters. 

Mystery means gaining interest through curiosity alone. We 
create but then conceal expositional facts, particularly facts in the 


Backstory. We arouse the audience’s curiosity about these past 
events, tease it with hints of the truth, then deliberately keep it in 
the dark by misleading it with “red herrings,” so that it believes or 
suspects false facts while we hide the real facts. 

“Red herrings” has an amusing etymology: As peasant poachers 
of deer and grouse made off with their booty through medieval 
forests, they would drag a fish, a red herring, across the trail to con¬ 
fuse the lord of the manor’s bloodhounds. 

This technique of compelling interest by devising a guessing 
game of red herrings and suspects, of confusion and curiosity, 
pleases the audience of one and only one genre, the Murder 
Mystery, which has two subgenres, the Closed Mystery and the Open- 

The Closed Mystery is the Agatha Christie form in which a 
murder is committed unseen in the Backstory. The primary con¬ 
vention of the “Who done it?” is multiple suspects. The writer must 
develop at least three possible killers to constantly mislead the 
audience to suspect the wrong person, the red herring, while with¬ 
holding the identity of the real killer to Climax. 

The Open Mystery is the Columbo form in which the audience 
sees the murder committed and therefore knows who did it. The 
story becomes a “How will he catch him?” as the writer substitutes 
multiple clues for multiple suspects. The murder must be an elabo¬ 
rate and seemingly perfect crime, a complex scheme involving a 
number of steps and technical elements. But the audience knows 
by convention that one of these elements is a fatal flaw of logic. 
When the detective arrives on the scene he instinctively knows who 
did it, sifts through the many clues searching for the telltale flaw, 
discovers it, and confronts the arrogant perfect-crime-committer, 
who then spontaneously confesses. 

In the Mystery form the killer and detective know the facts long 
before Climax but keep it to themselves. The audience runs from 
behind trying to figure out what the key characters already know. 
Of course, if we could win the race, we'd feel like losers. We try 
hard to guess the who or how, but we want the writer’s master 
detective to be just that. 


These two pure designs may be mixed or satirized. CHINA¬ 
TOWN starts Closed but then turns Open at the Act Two Climax. THE 
USUAL SUSPECTS parodies the Closed Mystery. It starts as a “Who 
done it?” but becomes a “Nobody done it”. . . whatever “it” may be. 

In Suspense the audience and characters know the 

same information. 

Suspense combines both Curiosity and Concern. Ninety percent 
of all films, comedy and drama, compel interest in this mode. In 
Suspense, however, curiosity is not about fact but outcome. The out¬ 
come of a Murder Mystery is always certain. Although we don’t know 
who or how, the detective will catch the killer and the story will end 
“up.” But the Suspense story could end “up” or “down” or in irony. 

Characters and audience move shoulder to shoulder through 
the telling, sharing the same knowledge. As the characters discover 
expositional fact, the audience discovers it. But what no one knows 
is “How will this turn out?” In this relationship we feel empathy 
and identify with the protagonist, whereas in pure Mystery our 
involvement is limited to sympathy. Master detectives are charming 
and likable, but we never identify with them because they’re too 
perfect and never in real jeopardy. Murder Mysteries are like board 
games, cool entertainments for the mind. 

In Dramatic Irony the audience knows more than the 


Dramatic Irony creates interest primarily through concern 
alone, eliminating curiosity about fact and consequence. Such sto¬ 
ries often open with the ending, deliberately giving away the out¬ 
come. When the audience is given the godlike superiority of 
knowing events before they happen, its emotional experience 
switches. What in Suspense would be anxiety about outcome and 
fear for the protagonist’s well-being, in Dramatic Irony becomes 
dread of the moment the character discovers what we already know 
and compassion for someone we see heading for disaster. 


SUNSET BOULEVARD: In the first sequence the body of Joe 
Gillis (William Holden) floats facedown in Norma Desmond’s 
(Gloria Swanson) swimming pool. The camera goes to the bottom of 
the pool, looks up at the corpse, and in voice-over Gillis muses that 
we’re probably wondering how he ended up dead in a swimming 
pool, so he’ll tell us. The film becomes a feature-length flashback, 
dramatizing a screenwriter's struggle for success. We’re moved to 
compassion and dread as we watch this poor man heading toward a 
fate we already know. We realize that all of Gillis's efforts to escape 
the clutches of a wealthy harridan and write an honest screenplay will 
come to nothing and he’ll end up a corpse in her swimming pool. 

BETRAYAL: The Antiplot device of telling a story in reverse 
order from end to beginning was invented in 1934 by Phillip 
Kaufman and Moss Hart for their play Merrily We Roll Along. Forty 
years later Harold Pinter used this idea to exploit the ultimate use 
of Dramatic Irony. BETRAYAL is a Love Story that opens with 
former lovers, Jerry and Emma (Jeremy Irons and Patricia Hodge) 
meeting privately for the first time in the years since their breakup. 
In a tense moment she confesses that her husband “knows,” her 
husband being Jerry’s best friend. As the film proceeds it flashes 
back to scenes of the breakup, then follows with the events that 
brought about the breakup, back farther to cover the golden days of 
the romance, then ends on boy-meets-girl. As the eyes of the young 
lovers glitter with anticipation, we’re filled with mixed emotions: 
We want them to have their affair, for it was sweet, but we also 
know all the bitterness and pain they’ll suffer. 

Placing the audience in the position of Dramatic Irony does not 
eliminate all curiosity. The result of showing the audience what will 
happen is to cause them to ask, “How and why did these characters 
do what I already know they did? Dramatic Irony encourages the 
audience to look more deeply into the motivations and causal forces 
at work in the characters’ lives. This is why we often enjoy a fine film 
more, or at least differently, on second viewing. We not only flex the 
often underused emotions of compassion and dread, but freed from 
curiosity about facts and outcome, we now concentrate on inner 
lives, unconscious energies, and the subtle workings of society. 


However, the majority of genres do not lend themselves to 
either pure Mystery or pure Dramatic Irony. Instead, within the 
Suspense relationship writers enrich the telling by mixing the 
other two. In an overall Suspense design, some sequences may 
employ Mystery to increase curiosity about certain facts, others 
may switch to Dramatic Irony to touch the audience's heart. 

CASABLANCA: At the end of Act One we learn that Rick and 
lisa had an affair in Paris that ended in breakup. Act Two opens 
with a flashback to Paris. From the vantage of Dramatic Irony, we 
watch the young lovers head for tragedy and feel a special tender¬ 
ness for their romantic innocence. We look deeply into their 
moments together, wondering why their love ended in heartbreak 
and how they’ll react when they discover what we already know. 

Later, at the climax of Act Two, lisa is back in Rick’s arms, 
ready to leave her husband for him. Act Three switches to Mystery 
by showing Rick make his Crisis decision but not letting us in on 
what he's chosen to do. Because Rick knows more than we, 
curiosity is piqued: Will he run off with lisa? When the answer 
arrives, it hits us with a jolt. 

Suppose you were working on a Thriller about a psychopathic 
axe murderer and a female detective, and you're ready to write the 
Story Climax. You’ve set it in the dimly lit corridor of an old man¬ 
sion. She knows the killer is near and clicks the safety off her gun 
as she moves slowly past doors left and right extending into the 
dark distance. Which of the three strategies to use? 

Mystery: Hide a fact known to the antagonist from the audience. 

Close all the doors so that as she moves down the hall the audi¬ 
ence’s eyes search the screen, wondering, Where is he? Behind the 
first door? The next door? The next? Then he attacks by crashing 
through . . . the ceiling! 

Suspense: Give the audience and characters the same informa¬ 

At the end of the hall a door is ajar with a light behind it casting 
a shadow on the wall of a man holding an axe. She sees the shadow 
and stops. The shadow retreats from the wall. CUT TO: Behind the 
door a man, axe in hand, waits: He knows that she’s there and he 


knows that she knows that he's there because he heard her foot¬ 
steps stop. CUT TO: The hallway where she hesitates: She knows 
that he’s there and she knows that he knows that she knows that 
he’s there because she saw his shadow move. We know that she 
knows that he knows, but what no one knows is how will this turn 
out? Will she kill him? Or will he kill her? 

Dramatic Irony: Employ Hitchcock’s favorite device and hide 
from the protagonist a fact known to the audience. 

She slowly edges toward a closed door at the end of the hall. 

CUT TO: Behind the door a man waits, axe in hand. CUT TO: 
The hallway as she moves closer and closer to the closed door. The 
audience, knowing what she doesn't know, switches its emotions 
from anxiety to dread: “Don’t go near that door! For God's sake, 
don’t open that door! He’s behind the door! Look out!” 

She opens the door and .. . mayhem. 

On the other hand, if she were to open the door and embrace 
the man... . 

(rubbing sore 

Honey, I’ve been chopping 
wood all afternoon. 

Is dinner ready? 

. . . this would not be Dramatic Irony, but False Mystery and its 
dim-witted cousin, Cheap Surprise. 

A certain amount of audience curiosity is essential. Without it, 
Narrative Drive grinds to a halt. The craft gives you the power to 
conceal fact or outcome in order to keep the audience looking 
ahead and asking questions. It gives you the power to mystify the 
audience, if that’s appropriate. But you must not abuse this power. 
If so, the audience, in frustration, will tune out. Instead, reward the 
filmgoer for his concentration with honest, insightful answers to 
his questions. No dirty tricks, no Cheap Surprise, no False Mystery. 

False Mystery is a counterfeit curiosity caused by the artificial 
concealment of fact. Exposition that could and should have been 


given to the audience is withheld in hope of holding interest over 
long, undramatized passages. 

FADE IN: The pilot of a crowded airliner battles an electrical 
storm. Lightning strikes the wing and the plane plunges toward a 
mountainside. CUT TO: Six months earlier, and a thirty-minute flash¬ 
back that tediously details the lives of the passengers and crew leading 
up to the fatal flight. This tease or cliff-hanger is a lame promise made 
by the writer: “Don't worry, folks, if you stick with me through this 
boring stretch, I’ll eventually get back to the exciting stuff.” 


We go to the storyteller with a prayer: “Please, let it be good. Let it 
give me an experience I’ve never had, insights into a fresh truth. 
Let me laugh at something I’ve never thought funny. Let me be 
moved by something that’s never touched me before. Let me see 
the world in a new way. Amen.” In other words, the audience prays 
for surprise, the reversal of expectation. 

As characters arrive onscreen, the audience surrounds them 
with expectations, feeling “this” will happen, “that” will change, 
Miss A will get the money, Mr. B will get the girl, Mrs. C will 
suffer. If what the audience expects to happen happens, or worse, if 
it happens the way the audience expects it to happen, this will be a 
very unhappy audience. We must surprise them. 

There are two kinds of surprise: cheap and true. True surprise 
springs from the sudden revelation of the Gap between expectation 
and result. This surprise is “true” because it’s followed by a rush of 
insight, the revelation of a truth hidden beneath the surface of the 
fictional world. 

Cheap Surprise takes advantage of the audience’s vulnerability. 
As it sits in the dark, the audience places its emotions in the story¬ 
teller’s hands. We can always shock filmgoers by smash cutting to 
something it doesn’t expect to see or away from something it expects 
to continue. By suddenly and inexplicably breaking the narrative flow 
we can always jolt people. But as Aristoltle complained, “To be about 
to act and not to act is the worst. It is shocking without being tragic.” 


In certain genres— Horror, Fantasy, Thriller —cheap surprise is 
a convention and part of the fun: The hero walks down a dark alley. 
A hand shoots in from the edge of the screen and grabs his 
shoulder, the hero spins around—and it's his best friend. Outside 
these genres, however, cheap surprise is a shoddy device. 

MY FAVORITE SEASON: A woman (Catherine Deneuve) is 
married but not happily. Her possessive brother agitates his sister's 
marriage, until finally convinced she cannot be happy with her hus¬ 
band, she leaves and moves in with her brother. Brother and sister 
share a top-floor apartment. He comes home one day feeling 
uncertain qualms. As he enters, he sees a window open, curtains 
billowing. He rushes to look down. In his POV we see his sister 
smashed on the cobbles far below, dead, surrounded by a pool of 
blood. CUT TO: The bedroom and his sister waking up from a nap. 

Why, in a serious Domestic Drama, would a director resort to 
horrific shock images from the brother's nervous imagination? 
Perhaps because the previous thirty minutes were so unbearably 
boring, he thought it was time to kick us in the shins with a trick 
he learned in film school. 


Story creates meaning. Coincidence, then, would seem our enemy, for 
it is the random, absurd collisions of things in the universe and is, by 
definition, meaningless. And yet coincidence is a part of life, often a 
powerful part, rocking existence, then vanishing as absurdly as it 
arrived. The solution, therefore, is not to avoid coincidence, but to dra¬ 
matize how it may enter life meaninglessly, but in time gain meaning, 
how the antilogic of randomness becomes the logic of life-as-lived. 

First, bring coincidence in early to allow time to build 

meaning out of it. 

The Inciting Incident of JAWS: a shark, by random chance, 
eats a swimmer. But once in the story the shark doesn't leave. It 
stays and gathers meaning as it continuously menaces the innocent 


until we get the feeling that the beast is doing it on purpose and, 
what’s more, enjoying it. Which is the definition of evil: Doing 
harm to others and taking pleasure in it. We all hurt people inad¬ 
vertently but instantly regret it. But when someone purposely seeks 
to cause pain in others and takes pleasure from it, that’s evil. The 
shark then becomes a powerful icon for the dark side of nature that 
would love to swallow us whole and laugh while doing it. 

Coincidence, therefore, must not pop into a story, turn a scene, 
then pop out. Example: Eric desperately seeks his estranged lover, 
Laura, but she’s moved. After searching in vain, he stops for a beer. 
On the stool next to him sits the real estate agent who sold Laura 
her new house. He gives Eric her exact address. Eric leaves with 
thanks and never sees the salesman again. Not that this coinci¬ 
dence couldn’t happen, but it’s pointless. 

On the other hand, suppose that the salesman can’t remember 
the address, but does recall that Laura bought a red Italian sports 
car at the same time. The two men leave together and spot her 
Maserati on the street. Now they both go up to her door. Still angry 
with Eric, Laura invites them in and flirts with the salesman to 
annoy her ex-lover. What was meaningless good luck now becomes 
a force of antagonism to Eric's desire. This triangle could build 
meaningfully through the rest of the story. 

As a rule of thumb do not use coincidence beyond the mid¬ 
point of the telling. Rather, put the story more and more into the 
hands of the characters. 

Second, never use coincidence to turn an ending. This 

is deus ex machina, the writer's greatest sin. 

Deus ex machina is a Latin phrase taken from the classical the¬ 
atres of Greece and Rome, meaning “god from machine.” From 
500 b.c. to a.d. 500 theatre flourished throughout the Mediter¬ 
ranean. Over those centuries hundreds of playwrights wrote for 
these stages but only seven have been remembered, the rest merci¬ 
fully forgotten, due primarily to their propensity to use deus ex 
machina to get out of story problems. Aristotle complained about 


this practice, sounding much like a Hollywood producer: “Why 
can't these writers come up with endings that work?” 

In these superb, acoustically perfect amphitheatres, some 
seating up to ten thousand people, at the far end of a horseshoe¬ 
shaped stage was a high wall. At the bottom were doors or arches 
for entrances and exits. But actors who portrayed gods would be 
lowered down to the stage from the top of the wall standing on a 
platform attached to ropes and pulley. This “god from machine” 
device was the visual analogy of the deities coming down from 
Mount Olympus and going back up to Mount Olympus. 

Story climaxes were as difficult twenty-five hundred years ago 
as now. But ancient playwrights had a way out. They would cook a 
story, twist Turning Points until they had the audience on the edge 
of their marble seats, then if the playwright’s creativity dried up 
and he was lost for a true Climax, convention allowed him to dodge 
the problem by cranking a god to the stage and letting an Apollo or 
Athena settle everything. Who lives, who dies, who marries who, 
who is damned for eternity. And they did this over and over. 

Nothing has changed in twenty-five hundred years. Writers 
today still cook up stories they can’t end. But instead of dropping a 
god in to get an ending, they use “acts of god”—the hurricane that 
saves the lovers in HURRICANE, the elephant stampede that 
resolves the love triangle in ELEPHANT WALK, the traffic acci¬ 
in just in time to devour the velociraptors in JURASSIC PARK. 

Deus ex machina not only erases all meaning and emotion, it’s 
an insult to the audience. Each of us knows we must choose and act, 
for better or worse, to determine the meaning of our lives. No one 
and nothing coincidental will come along to take that responsibility 
from us, regardless of the injustices and chaos around us. You could 
be locked in a cell for the rest of your life for a crime you did not 
commit. But every morning you would still have to get up and make 
meaning. Do I bludgeon my brains against this wall or do I find 
some way to get through my days with value? Our lives are ultimately 
in our own hands. Deus ex machina is an insult because it is a lie. 


The one exception is Antistructure films that substitute coinci¬ 
dence for causality: WEEKEND, CHOOSE ME, STRANGERS IN 
PARADISE, and AFTER HOURS begin by coincidence, progress 
by coincidence, end on coincidence. When coincidence rules story, 
it creates a new and rather significant meaning: Life is absurd. 


Comedy writers often feel that in their wild world the principles 
that guide the dramatist don’t apply. But whether coolly satiric or 
madly farcical, comedy is simply another form of storytelling. 
There are, however, important exceptions that begin in the deep 
division between the comic and tragic visions of life. 

The dramatist admires humanity and creates works that say, in 
essence: Under the worst of circumstances the human spirit is 
magnificent. Comedy points out that in the best of circumstances 
human beings find some way to screw up. 

When we peek behind the grinning mask of comic cynicism, 
we find a frustrated idealist. The comic sensibility wants the world 
to be perfect, but when it looks around, it finds greed, corruption, 
lunacy. The result is an angry and depressed artist. If you doubt 
that, ask one over for dinner. Every host in Hollywood has made 
that mistake: “Let’s invite some comedy writers to the party! That’ll 
brighten things up.” Sure . . . till the paramedics arrive. 

These angry idealists, however, know that if they lecture the 
world about what a rotten place it is, no one will listen. But if 
they trivialize the exalted, pull the trousers down on snobbery, if 
they expose society for its tyranny, folly, and greed, and get 
people to laugh, then maybe things will change. Or balance. So 
God bless comedy writers. What would life be like without 

Comedy is pure: If the audience laughs, it works; if it doesn’t 
laugh, it doesn’t work. End of discussion. That’s why critics hate 
comedy; there’s nothing to say. If I were to argue that CITIZEN 
KANE is a bloated exercise in razzle-dazzle spectacle, populated by 
stereotypical characters, twisted with manipulative storytelling, 


stuffed full of self-contradictory Freudian and Pirandellian cliches, 
made by a heavy-handed showoff out to impress the world, we 
might bicker forever because the CITIZEN KANE audience is silent. 
But if I were to say A FISH CALLED WANDA is not funny, you'll 
pity me and walk away. In comedy laughter settles all arguments. 

The dramatist is fascinated by the inner life, the passions and 
sins, madness and dreams of the human heart. But not the comedy 
writer. He fixes on the social life—the idiocy, arrogance, and bru¬ 
tality in society. The comedy writer singles out a particular institu¬ 
tion that he feels has become encrusted with hypocrisy and folly, 
then goes on the attack. Often we can spot the social institution 
under assault by noting the film's title. 

THE RULING CLASS attacks the rich; so too TRADING 
M*A*S*H assaults the military, as do PRIVATE BENJAMIN and 
EVE, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY—satirize the institution of 
strike at television, school, fraternities, rock 'n' roll, the mafia, the 
theatre, Cold War politics, the Catholic Church, and summer camp, 
respectively. If a film genre grows thick with self-importance, it too 
is ripe for mockery: AIRPLANE, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, 
NAKED GUN. What was known as Comedy of Manners has become 
the sitcom—a satire of middle-class behavior. 

When a society cannot ridicule and criticize its institutions, it 
cannot laugh. The shortest book ever written would be the history 
of German humor, a culture that has suffered spells of paralyzing 
fear of authority. Comedy is at heart an angry, antisocial art. To 
solve the problem of weak comedy, therefore, the writer first asks: 
What am I angry about? He finds that aspect of society that heats 
his blood and goes on an assault. 


Comic Design 

In drama the audience continuously grabs handfuls of the future, 
pulling themselves through, wanting to know the outcome. But 
Comedy allows the writer to halt Narrative Drive, the forward pro¬ 
jecting mind of the audience, and interpolate into the telling a 
scene with no story purpose. It's there just for the yucks. 

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS: Masochistic patient (Bill Murray) 
visits sadistic dentist (Steve Martin), and as he cuddles up in the chair, 
says: “I want a long, slow root canal.” It’s drop-dead funny but has 
nothing to do with the story. If cut, no one would notice. But should it 
be cut? Hell no, it's hysterical. How litde story can be told and how 
much pure comedy worked into a film? Watch the Marx Brothers. A 
sharp story, complete with Inciting Incident, first, second, and third 
act climaxes, always holds a Marx Brothers film together ... for a total 
screentime of about ten minutes. The other eighty minutes are sur¬ 
rendered to the dizzying genius of Marx Brothers shtick. 

Comedy tolerates more coincidence than drama, and may even 
allow a deus ex machina ending ... if two things are done: First, the 
audience is made to feel that the comic protagonist has suffered 
enormously. Second, that he never despairs, never loses hope. Under 
these conditions the audience may think: “Oh, hell, give it to him.” 

THE GOLD RUSH: At Climax the Little Chap (Charlie Chaplin) 
is nearly frozen to death when a blizzard rips his cabin off the 
ground, blows it and Chaplin across Alaska, then drops him smack 
on a gold mine. CUT TO: He’s rich, dressed to the nines, smoking a 
cigar, heading back to the States. A comic coincidence that leaves 
the audience thinking, “This guy ate his shoes, was almost cannibal¬ 
ized by other miners, devoured by a grizzly bear, rejected by the 
dance hall girls—he walked all the way to Alaska. Give ’im a break." 

The incisive difference between comedy and drama is this: Both 
turn scenes with surprise and insight, but in comedy, when the Gap 
cracks open, the surprise explodes the great belly laughs of the night. 

A FISH CALLED WANDA: Archie takes Wanda to a borrowed 
love nest. Panting with anticipation, she watches from the sleeping 
loft as Archie pirouettes around the room, stripping buck naked, 


intoning Russian poetry that makes her writhe. He puts his under¬ 
wear on his head and declares himself free of the fear of embar¬ 
rassment . . . the door opens and in walks an entire family. A killer 
Gap between expectation and result. 

Simply put, a Comedy is a funny story, an elaborate rolling joke. 
While wit lightens a telling, it doesn’t alone make it a true Comedy. 
Rather, wit often creates hybrids such as the Dramedy (ANNIE 
HALL), or the Crimedy (LETHAL WEAPON). You know you’ve 
written a true comedy when you sit an innocent victim down and 
pitch your story. Just tell him what happens, without quoting witty 
dialogue or sight gags, and he laughs. Every time you turn the 
scene, he laughs; turn it again and he laughs again; turn, laugh, 
until by the end of the pitch you have him collapsed on the floor. 
That’s a Comedy. If you pitch your story and people don’t laugh, 
you’ve not written a Comedy. You’ve written . . . something else. 

The solution, however, is not found in trying to devise clever 
lines or pie in the face. Gags come naturally when the comic struc¬ 
ture calls for them. Instead, concentrate on Turning Points. For 
each action first ask, “What’s the opposite of that?” then take it a 
step farther to “What’s off-the-wall from that?” Spring gaps of 
comic surprise—write a funny story. 


For the screenwriter Point of View has two meanings. First, we 
occasionally call for POV shots. For example: 


Jack sips coffee, when suddenly he hears a SCREECH OF BRAKES 
and a CRASH that shakes the house. He rushes to the window. 


out the window: Tony’s car crumpled against the garage door 
and his son staggering across the lawn, giggling drunk. 



throwing open the window in a rage. 

The second meaning, however, applies to the writer's vision. 
From what Point of View is each scene written? From what Point 
of View is the story as a whole told? 


Each story is set in a specific time and place, yet scene by scene, 
as we imagine events, where do we locate ourselves in space to 
view the action? This is Point of View—the physical angle we 
take in order to describe the behavior of our characters, their 
interaction with one another and the environment. How we make 
our choices of Point of View has enormous influence on how the 
reader reacts to the scene and how the director will later stage and 
shoot it. 

We can imagine ourselves anywhere 360 degrees around an 
action or at the center of the action looking out in 360 different 
degrees—high above the action, below it, anywhere globally. Each 
choice of POV has a different effect on empathy and emotion. 

For example, continuing the father/son scene above, Jack calls 
Tony to the window and they argue. The father demands to know 
why a son in medical school is drunk and learns that the university 
has expelled him. Tony wanders off, distraught. Jack races through 
the house to the street and consoles his son. 

There are four distinctively different POV choices in this scene: 
One, put Jack exclusively at the center of your imagination. Follow 
him from table to window, seeing what he sees and his reactions to 
it. Then move with him through the house to the street as he 
chases after Tony to embrace him. Two, do the same with Tony. 
Stay with him exclusively as he weaves his car up the street, across 
the lawn, and into the garage door. Show his reactions when he 
stumbles out of the wreck to confront his father at the window. 
Take him down the street, then suddenly turn him as his father 


runs up to hug him. Three, alternate between Jack’s POV and 
Tony’s POV. Four, take a neutral POV. Imagine them, as a comedy 
writer might, at a distance and in profile. 

This first encourages us to empathize with Jack, the second 
asks empathy for Tony, the third draws us close to both, the fourth 
with neither and prompts us to laugh at them. 


If in the two hours of a feature film you can bring audience mem¬ 
bers to a complex and deeply satisfying relationship with just one 
character, an understanding and involvement they will carry for a 
lifetime, you have done far more than most films. Generally, there¬ 
fore, it enhances the telling to style the whole story from the pro¬ 
tagonist’s Point of View—to discipline yourself to the protagonist, 
make him the center of your imaginative universe, and bring the 
whole story, event by event, to the protagonist. The audience wit¬ 
nesses events only as the protagonist encounters them. This, 
clearly, is the far more difficult way to tell story. 

The easy way is to hopscotch through time and space, picking 
up bits and pieces to facilitate exposition, but this makes story 
sprawl and lose tension. Like limited setting, genre convention, 
and Controlling Idea, shaping a story from the exclusive Point of 
View of the protagonist is a creative discipline. It taxes the imagina¬ 
tion and demands your very best work. The result is a tight, 
smooth, memorable character and story. 

The more time spent with a character, the more oppor¬ 
tunity to witness his choices. The result is more empathy 
and emotional involvement between audience and 


The conceit of adaptation is that the hard work of story can be 
avoided by optioning a literary work and simply shifting it into a 


screenplay. That is almost never the case. To grasp the difficulties 
of adaptation we look again at story complexity. 

In the twentieth century we now have three media for telling 
story: prose (novel, novella, short story), theatre (legit, musical, 
opera, mime, ballet), and screen (film and television). Each medium 
tells complex stories by bringing characters into simultaneous con¬ 
flict on all three levels of life; however, each has a distinctive power 
and innate beauty at one of these levels. 

The unique strength and wonder of the novel is the dramatiza¬ 
tion of inner conflict. This is what prose does best, far better than play 
or film. Whether in first- or third-person, the novelist slips inside 
thought and feeling with subtlety, density, and poetic imagery to pro¬ 
ject onto the reader’s imagination the turmoil and passions of inner 
conflict. In the novel extra-personal conflict is delineated through 
description, word pictures of characters struggling with society or 
environment, while personal conflict is shaped through dialogue. 

The unique command and grace of the theatre is the dramati¬ 
zation of personal conflict. This is what the theatre does best, far 
better than novel or film. A great play is almost pure dialogue, per¬ 
haps 80 percent is for the ear, only 20 percent for the eye. Non¬ 
verbal communication—gestures, looks, lovemaking, fighting—is 
important, but, by and large, personal conflicts evolve for better or 
worse through talk. What’s more, the playwright has a license 
screenwriters do not—he may write dialogue in a way no human 
being has ever spoken. He may write, not just poetic dialogue, but, 
like Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, and Christopher Frye, use poetry itself 
as dialogue, lifting the expressivity of personal conflict to incredible 
heights. In addition, he has the live voice of the actor to add 
nuances of shading and pause that take it even higher. 

In the theatre inner conflict is dramatized through subtext. As 
the actor brings the character to life from the inside, the audience 
sees through the sayings and doings to the thoughts and feelings 
underneath. Like a first-person novel, the theatre can send a char¬ 
acter to the apron in soliloquy to speak intimately with the audi¬ 
ence. In direct address, however, the character isn’t necessarily 
telling the truth, or if sincere, isn’t able to understand his inner life 


and tell the whole truth. The theatre’s power to dramatize inner 
conflict through unspoken subtext is ample but, compared to the 
novel, limited. The stage can also dramatize extra-personal con¬ 
flicts, but how much of society can it hold? How much environ¬ 
ment of sets and props? 

The unique power and splendor of the cinema is the dramatiza¬ 
tion of extra-personal conflict, huge and vivid images of human 
beings wrapped inside their society and environment, striving with 
life. This is what film does best, better than play or novel. If we 
were to take a single frame from BLADE RUNNER and ask the 
world’s finest prose stylist to create the verbal equivalent of that 
composition, he would fill page after page with words and never 
capture its essence. And that is only one of thousands of complex 
images flowing through the experience of an audience. 

Critics often complain about chase sequences, as if they were a 
new phenomenon. The first great discovery of the Silent Era was 
the chase, enlivening Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Cops, thou¬ 
sands of Westerns, most of D. W. Griffith’s films, BEN HUR, THE 
tiful SUNRISE. The chase is a human being pursued by society, 
struggling through the physical world to escape and survive. It’s 
pure extra-personal conflict, pure cinema, the most natural thing to 
want to do with a camera and editing machine. 

To express personal conflict the screenwriter must use plain- 
spoken dialogue. When we use theatrical language on screen the 
audience’s rightful reaction is: “People don’t talk like that.” Other 
than the special case of filmed Shakespeare, screenwriting 
demands naturalistic talk. Film, however, gains great power in 
nonverbal communication. With close-up, lighting, and nuances of 
angle, gestures and facial expressions become very eloquent. 
Nonetheless, the screenwriter cannot dramatize personal conflict to 
the poetic fullness of the theatre. 

The dramatization of inner conflict on screen is exclusively in 
the subtext as the camera looks through the face of the actor to 
thoughts and feelings within. Even the personal direct-to-camera 
narration in ANNIE HALL or Salieri’s confession in AMADEUS is 


layered with subtext. The inner life can be expressed impressively 
in film, but it cannot reach the density or complexity of a novel. 

That is the lay of the land. Now imagine the problems of adap¬ 
tation. Over the decades hundreds of millions of dollars have been 
spent to option the film rights to literary works that are then tossed 
into the laps of screenwriters who read them and go running, 
screaming into the night, “Nothing’s happens! The whole book is 
in the character's head!” 

Therefore, the first principle of adaptation: The purer the novel, 
the purer the play, the worse the film. 

“Literary purity” does not mean literary achievement. Purity of 
novel means a telling located exclusively at the level of inner con¬ 
flict, employing linguistic complexities to incite, advance, and 
climax story with relative independence of personal, social, and 
environmental forces: Joyce’s Ulysses. Purity of theatre means a 
telling located exclusively at the level of personal conflict, 
employing the spoken word in poetic excess to incite, advance, and 
climax story with relative independence of inner, social, and envi¬ 
ronmental forces: Eliot’s The Cocktail Party. 

Attempts to adapt “pure” literature fail for two reasons: One is 
aesthetic impossibility. Image is prelinguistic; no cinematic equiva¬ 
lences or even approximations exist for conflicts buried in the 
extravagant language of master novelists and playwrights. Two, 
when a lesser talent attempts to adapt genius, which is more likely? 
Will a lesser talent rise to the level of genius, or will genius be 
dragged down to the level of the adaptor? 

The world’s screens are frequently stained by pretentious film¬ 
makers who wish to be regarded as another Fellini or Bergman, 
but unlike Fellini and Bergman cannot create original works, so 
they go to equally pretentious funding agencies with a copy of 
Proust or Woolf in hand, promising to bring art to the masses. The 
bureaucrats grant the money, politicians congratulate themselves 
to their constituents for bringing art to the masses, the director 
gets a paycheck, the film vanishes over a weekend. 

If you must adapt, come down a rung or two from “pure” litera¬ 
ture and look for stories in which conflict is distributed on all three 


levels . . . with an emphasis at the extra-personal. Pierre Boulle’s The 
Bridge on the River Kwai won't be taught alongside Thomas Mann 
and Franz Kafka in postgraduate seminars, but it's an excellent 
work, populated with complex characters driven by inner and per¬ 
sonal conflicts and dramatized primarily at extrapersonal level. Con¬ 
sequently, Carl Foreman’s adaptation became, in my judgment, 
David Lean's finest film. 

To adapt, first read the work over and over without taking notes 
until you feel infused with its spirit. Do not make choices or plan 
moves until you’ve rubbed shoulders with its society, read their 
faces, smelled their cologne. As with a story you’re creating from 
scratch, you must achieve a godlike knowledge and never assume 
that the original writer has done his homework. That done, reduce 
each event to a one- or two-sentence statement of what happens 
and no more. No psychology, no sociology. For example: “He walks 
into the house expecting a confrontation with his wife, but dis¬ 
covers a note telling him she’s left him for another man.” 

That done, read through the events and ask yourself, “Is this 
story well told?” Then brace yourself, for nine times out of ten 
you'll discover it’s not. Just because a writer got a play to the stage 
or a novel into print doesn’t mean that he has mastered the craft. 
Story is the hardest thing we all do. Many novelists are weak story¬ 
tellers, playwrights even weaker. Or you’ll discover that it’s beauti¬ 
fully told, a clockwork of perfection . . . but four hundred pages 
long, three times as much material as you can use for a film, and if 
a single cog is taken out, the clock stops telling time. In either case, 
your task will not be one of adaptation but of reinvention. 

The second principle of adaptation: Be willing to reinvent. 

Tell the story in filmic rhythms while keeping the spirit of the 
original. To reinvent: No matter in what order the novel’s events 
were told, reorder them in time from first to last, as if they were 
biographies. From these create a step-outline, using, where valuable, 
designs from the original work, but feeling free to cut scenes and, if 
necessary, to create new ones. Most testing of all, turn what is mental 
into the physical. Don't fill characters’ mouths with self-explanatory 
dialogue but find visual expression for their inner conflicts. This is 


where you’ll succeed or fail. Seek a design that expresses the spirit of 
the original yet stays within the rhythms of a film, ignoring the risk 
that critics may say, “But the film’s not like the novel.” 

The aesthetics of the screen often demand reinvention of story, 
even when the original is superbly told and of feature-film size. As 
Milos Foreman told Peter Shaffer while adapting AMADEUS from 
stage to screen, “You're going to have to give birth to your child a 
second time.” The result is that the world now has two excellent ver¬ 
sions of the same story, each true to its medium. While struggling 
with an adaptation bear this in mind: If reinvention deviates radically 
LIAISONS—but the film is excellent, critics fall silent. But if you 
butcher the original—THE SCARLET LETTER, THE BONFIRE OF 
THE VANITIES—and do not put a work as good or better in its 
place, duck. 

To learn adaptation study the work of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. She 
is, in my view, the finest adapter of novel to screen in film history. 
She’s a Pole bom in Germany who writes in English. Having rein¬ 
vented her nationality, she’s become the master reinventer for film. 
Like a chameleon or trance-medium, she inhabits the colors and spirit 
of other writers. Read Quartet, A Room with a View, The Bostonians, 
pull a step-outline from each novel, then scene by scene compare your 
work to fhabvala. You’ll leam a lot. Notice that she and director James 
Ivory restrict themselves to the social novelists—Jean Rhys, E. M. 
Forster, Henry James—knowing that the primary conflicts will be 
extra-personal and camera attractive. No Proust, no Joyce, no Kafka. 

Although the natural expressivity of cinema is extra-personal, it 
shouldn’t inhibit us. Rather, the challenge that great filmmakers 
have always accepted is to start with images of social/environ¬ 
mental conflict and lead us into the complexities of personal rela¬ 
tionships, to begin on the surface of what’s said and done and 
guide us to a perception of the inner life, the unspoken, the uncon¬ 
scious—to swim upstream and achieve on film what the play¬ 
wright and novelist do most easily. 

By the same token, playwright and novelist have always under¬ 
stood that their challenge is to do on stage or page what film does 


best. Flaubert's famous cinematic style was developed long before 
there was cinema. Eisenstein said he learned to cut film by reading 
Charles Dickens. Shakespeare's stunning fluidity through time and 
space suggests an imagination hungry for a camera. Great story¬ 
tellers have always known that “Show, don’t tell” is the ultimate 
creative task: to write in a purely dramatic and visual way, to show a 
natural world of natural human being behavior, to express the com¬ 
plexity of life without telling. 


To avoid the accusation “This script is melodramatic,” many 
avoid writing “big scenes,” passionate, powerful events. Instead, 
they write minimalist sketches in which little if anything hap¬ 
pens, thinking they’re subtle. This is folly. Nothing human 
beings do in and of itself is melodramatic, and human beings are 
capable of anything. Daily newspapers record acts of enormous 
self-sacrifice and cruelty, of daring and cowardliness, of saints 
and tyrants from Mother Teresa to Saddam Hussein. Anything 
you can imagine human beings doing, they have already done 
and in ways you cannot imagine. None of it is melodrama; it's 
simply human. 

Melodrama is not the result of overexpression, but of under 
motivation; not writing too big, but writing with too little desire. 
The power of an event can only be as great as the sum total of its 
causes. We feel a scene is melodramatic if we cannot believe that 
motivation matches action. Writers from Homer to Shakespeare to 
Bergman have created explosive scenes no one would call melo¬ 
drama because they knew how to motivate characters. If you can 
imagine high drama or comedy, write it, but lift the forces that 
drive your characters to equal or surpass the extremities of their 
actions and we’ll embrace you for taking us to the end of the line. 


A “hole” is another way to lose credibility. Rather than a lack of 
motivation, now the story lacks logic, a missing link in the chain of 


cause and effect. But like coincidence, holes are a part of life. 
Things often happen for reasons that cannot be explained. So if 
you’re writing about life, a hole or two may find its way into your 
telling. The problem is how to handle it. 

If you can forge a link between illogical events and close the 
hole, do so. This remedy, however, often requires the creation of a 
new scene that has no purpose other than making what’s around it 
logical, causing an awkwardness as annoying as the hole. 

In which case ask: Will they notice? You know it’s a jump in 
logic because the story sits still on your desk with its hole glaring 
up at you. But onscreen the story flows in time. As the hole arrives, 
the audience may not have sufficient information at that point to 
realize that what just happened isn’t logical or it may happen so 
quickly, it passes unnoticed. 

CHINATOWN: Ida Sessions (Diane Ladd) impersonates Evelyn 
Mulwray and hires J. J. Gittes to investigate Hollis Mulwray for 
adultery. After Gittes discovers what appears to be an affair, the 
real wife shows up with her lawyer and a lawsuit. Gittes realizes 
that someone is out to get Mulwray, but before he can help the 
man is murdered. Early in Act Two Gittes gets a phone call from 
Ida Sessions telling him that she had no idea that things would 
lead to murder and wants him to know she's innocent. In this call 
she also gives Gittes a vital clue to the motivation for the killing. 
Her words, however, are so cryptic he’s only more confused. Later, 
however, he pieces her clue to other evidence he unearths and 
thinks he knows who did it and why. 

Early in Act Three he finds Ida Sessions dead and in her wallet 
discovers a Screen Actors Guild card. In other words, Ida Sessions 
couldn't possibly have known what she said over the phone. Her 
clue is a crucial detail of a citywide corruption run by millionaire 
businessmen and high government officials, something they would 
never have told the actress they hired to impersonate the victim’s 
wife. But when she tells Gittes, we have no idea who Ida Sessions 
is and what she could or could not know. When she’s found dead 
an hour and a half later, we don’t see the hole because by then 
we’ve forgotten what she said. 


So maybe the audience won't notice. But maybe it will. Then 
what? Cowardly writers try to kick sand over such holes and hope the 
audience doesn't notice. Other writers face this problem manfully. 
They expose the hole to the audience, then deny that it is a hole. 

CASABLANCA: Ferrari (Sidney Greenstreet) is the ultimate capi¬ 
talist and crook who never does anything except for money. Yet at one 
point Ferrari helps Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) find the precious let¬ 
ters of transit and wants nothing in return. That’s out of character, 
illogical. Knowing this, the writers gave Ferrari the line: “Why I’m 
doing this I don’t know because it can't possibly profit me .. .” Rather 
than hiding the hole, the writers admitted it with the bold lie that Fer¬ 
rari might be impulsively generous. The audience knows we often do 
things for reasons we can’t explain. Complimented, it nods, thinking, 
“Even Ferrari doesn’t get it. Fine. On with the film.” 

THE TERMINATOR doesn't have a hole—it’s built over an abyss: 
In 2029 robots have all but exterminated the human race, when the 
remnants of humanity, lead by John Connor, turn the tide of the war. 
To eliminate their enemy, the robots invent a time machine and send 
the Terminator back to 1984 to kill the mother of John Connor before 
he’s bom. Connor captures their device and sends a young officer, 
Reese, back to try to destroy the Terminator first. He does this 
knowing that indeed Reese will not only save his mother but get her 
pregnant, and therefore his lieutenant is his father. What? 

But James Cameron and Gail Anne Hurd understand Narrative 
Drive. They knew that if they exploded two warriors from the 
future into the streets of Los Angeles and sent them roaring in pur¬ 
suit of this poor woman, the audience wouldn’t be asking analytical 
questions, and bit by bit they could parse out their setup. But 
respecting the intelligence of the audience, they also knew that 
after the film over coffee the audience might think: “Wait a minute 
... if Connor knew Reese would . . . ,” and so on, and the holes 
would swallow up the audience’s pleasure. So they wrote this reso¬ 
lution scene. 

The pregnant Sarah Connor heads for the safety of remote 
mountains in Mexico, there to give birth and raise her son for his 
future mission. At a gas station she dictates memoirs to her 


unborn hero into a tape recorder and she says in effect: “You know, 
my son, I don't get it. If you know that Reese will be your father . . . 
then why ... ? How? And does that mean that this is going to 
happen again . . . and again ... ?” Then she pauses and says, “You 
know, you could go crazy thinking about this.” And all over the 
world audiences thought: “Hell, she’s right. It’s not important.” 
With that they happily threw logic into the trash. 




As I traced the evolution of story through the twenty-eight cen¬ 
turies since Homer, I thought I’d save a thousand years and skip 
from the fourth century to the Renaissance because, according to 
my undergrad history text, during the Dark Ages all thinking 
stopped while monks dithered over such questions as “How many 
angels dance on the head of a pin?” Skeptical, I looked a little 
deeper and found that in fact intellectual life in the medieval epoch 
went on vigorously . . . but in poetic code. When the metaphor was 
deciphered, researchers discovered that “How many angels dance 
on the head of pin?” isn’t metaphysics, it’s physics. The topic under 
discussion is atomic structure: “How small is small?” 

To discuss psychology, medieval scholarship devised another 
ingenious conceit: the Mind Worm. Suppose a creature had the 
power to burrow into the brain and come to know an individual 
completely—dreams, fears, strength, weakness. Suppose that this 
Mind Worm also had the power to cause events in the world. It 
could then create a specific happening geared to the unique nature 
of that person that would trigger a one-of-a-kind adventure, a quest 
that would force him to use himself to the limit, to live to his 
deepest and fullest. Whether a tragedy or fulfillment, this quest 
would reveal his humanity absolutely. 

Reading that I had to smile, for the writer is a Mind Worm. We 
too burrow into a character to discover his aspects, his potential. 



then create an event geared to his unique nature—the Inciting Inci¬ 
dent. For each protagonist it’s different—for one perhaps finding a 
fortune, for another losing a fortune—but we design the event to fit 
the character, the precise happening needed to send him on a quest 
that reaches the limits of his being. Like the Mind Worm, we 
explore the inscape of human nature, expressed in poetic code. For 
as centuries pass, nothing changes within us. As William Faulkner 
observed, human nature is the only subject that doesn’t date. 

Characters Are Not Human Beings 

A character is no more a human being than the Venus de Milo is a 
real woman. A character is a work of art, a metaphor for human 
nature. We relate to characters as if they were real, but they’re 
superior to reality. Their aspects are designed to be clear and know- 
able; whereas our fellow humans are difficult to understand, if not 
enigmatic. We know characters better than we know our friends 
because a character is eternal and unchanging, while people 
shift—just when we think we understand them, we don’t. In fact, I 
know Rick Blaine in CASABLANCA better than I know myself. 
Rick is always Rick. I’m a bit iffy. 

Character design begins with an arrangement of the two pri¬ 
mary aspects: Characterization and True Character. To repeat: Char¬ 
acterization is the sum of all the observable qualities, a 
combination that makes the character unique: physical appearance 
coupled with mannerisms, style of speech and gesture, sexuality, 
age, IQ, occupation, personality, attitudes, values, where he lives, 
how he lives. True Character waits behind this mask. Despite his 
characterization, at heart who is this person? Loyal or disloyal? 
Honest or a liar? Loving or cruel? Courageous or cowardly? Gen¬ 
erous or selfish? Willful or weak? 

TRUE CHARACTER can only be expressed through 
choice in dilemma. How the person chooses to act 
under pressure is who he is—the greater the pressure, 
the truer and deeper the choice to character. 


The key to True Character is desire. In life, if we feel stifled, the 
fastest way to get unstuck is to ask, “What do I want?,” listen to the 
honest answer, then find the will to pursue that desire. Problems 
still remain, but now we're in motion with the chance of solving 
them. What’s true of life is true of fiction. A character comes to life 
the moment we glimpse a clear understanding of his desire—not 
only the conscious, but in a complex role, the unconscious desire 
as well. 

Ask: What does this character want? Now? Soon? Overall? 
Knowingly? Unknowingly? With clear, true answers comes your 
command of the role. 

Behind desire is motivation. Why does your character want 
what he wants? You have your ideas about motive, but don’t be sur¬ 
prised if others see it differently. A friend may feel that parental 
upbringing shaped your character’s desires; someone else may 
think it’s our materialist culture; another may blame the school 
system; yet another may claim it’s in the genes; still another thinks 
he’s possessed by the devil. Contemporary attitudes tend to favor 
mono-explanations for behavior, rather than the complexity of 
forces that’s more likely the case. 

Do not reduce characters to case studies (an episode of child 
abuse is the cliche in vogue at the moment), for in truth there are 
no definitive explanations for anyone’s behavior. Generally, the more 
the writer nails motivation to specific causes, the more he diminishes the 
character in the audience's mind. Rather, think through to a solid 
understanding of motive, but at the same time leave some mystery 
around the whys, a touch of the irrational perhaps, room for the 
audience to use its own life experience to enhance your character in 
its imagination. 

In King Lear, for example, Shakespeare cast one of his most com¬ 
plex villains, Edmund. After a scene in which astrological influences, 
yet another mono-explanation of behavior, are blamed for someone’s 
misfortune, Edmund turns in soliloquy and laughs, “I should have 
been what I am had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled 
on my bastardy.” Edmund does evil for the pure pleasure of it. 
Beyond that, what matters? As Aristotle observed, why a man does a 


thing is of little interest once we see the thing he does. A character is 
the choices he makes to take the actions he takes. Once the deed is 
done his reasons why begin to dissolve into irrelevancy. 

The audience comes to understand your character in a variety 
of ways: The physical image and setting say a lot, but the audience 
knows that appearance is not reality, characterization is not true 
character. Nonetheless, a character’s mask is an important clue to 
what may be revealed. 

What other characters say about a character is a hint. We know 
that what one person says of another may or may not be true, given 
the axes people have to grind, but that it’s said and by whom is 
worth knowing. What a character says about himself may or may 
not be true. We listen, but then put it in our pockets. 

In fact, characters with lucid self-knowledge, those reciting self- 
explanatory dialogue meant to convince us that they are who they 
say they are, are not only boring but phony. The audience knows 
that people rarely, if ever, understand themselves, and if they do, 
they’re incapable of complete and honest self-explanation. There’s 
always a subtext. If, by chance, what a character says about himself 
is actually true, we don’t know it’s true until we witness his choices 
made under pressure. Self-explanation must be validated or contra¬ 
dicted in action. In CASABLANCA when Rick says, “I stick my 
neck out for no man," we think, “Well, not yet, Rick, not yet." We 
know Rick better than he knows himself, for indeed he’s wrong; 
he’ll stick his neck out many times. 

Character Dimension 

'Dimension” is the least understood concept in character. When I 
was an actor, directors would insist on “round, three-dimensional 
characters," and I was all for that, but when I asked them what 
exactly is a dimension and how do I create one, let alone three, they’d 
waffle, mumble something about rehearsal, then stroll away. 

Some years ago a producer pitched me what he believed to be a 
"three-dimensional” protagonist in these terms: “Jessie just got out 
of prison, but while he was in the slammer he boned up on finance 


and investment, so he's an expert on stocks, bonds, and securities. 
He can also break dance. He's got a black belt in karate and plays a 
mean jazz saxophone.” His “Jessie” was as flat as a desktop—a 
cluster of traits stuck on a name. Decorating a protagonist with 
quirks does not open his character and draw empathy. Rather, 
eccentricities may close him off and keep us at a distance. 

A favorite academic tenet argues that, instead, fine characters 
are marked by one dominant trait. Macbeth's ambition is fre¬ 
quently cited. Overweening ambition, it’s claimed, makes Macbeth 
great. This theory is dead wrong. If Macbeth were merely ambi¬ 
tious, there’d be no play. He’d simply defeat the English and rule 
Scotland. Macbeth is a brilliantly realized character because of the 
contradiction between his ambition on one hand and his guilt on 
the other. From this profound inner contradiction springs his pas¬ 
sion, his complexity, his poetry. 

Dimension means contradiction: either within deep character 
(guilt-ridden ambition) or between characterization and deep char¬ 
acter (a charming thief). These contradictions must be consistent. It 
doesn’t add dimension to portray a guy as nice throughout a film, 
then in one scene have him kick a cat. 

Consider Hamlet, the most complex character ever written. 
Hamlet isn’t three-dimensional, but ten, twelve, virtually uncount- 
ably dimensional. He seems spiritual until he’s blasphemous. To 
Ophelia he's first loving and tender, then callous, even sadistic. 
He’s courageous, then cowardly. At times he’s cool and cautious, 
then impulsive and rash, as he stabs someone hiding behind a cur¬ 
tain without knowing who’s there. Hamlet is ruthless and compas¬ 
sionate, proud and self-pitying, witty and sad, weary and dynamic, 
lucid and confused, sane and mad. His is an innocent worldliness, 
a worldly innocence, a living contradiction of almost any human 
qualities we could imagine. 

Dimensions fascinate; contradictions in nature or behavior 
rivet the audience’s concentration. Therefore, the protagonist must 
be the most dimensional character in the cast to focus empathy on 
the star role. If not, the Center of Good decenters; the fictional uni¬ 
verse flies apart; the audience loses balance. 


BLADE RUNNER: Marketing positioned the audience to 
empathize with Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard, but once in the the¬ 
atre, filmgoers were drawn to the greater dimensionality of the repli¬ 
cant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). As the Center of Good shifted to the 
antagonist, the audience’s emotional confusion diminished its enthu¬ 
siasm, and what should have been a huge success became a cult film. 

Cast Design 

In essence, the protagonist creates the rest of the cast. All other 
characters are in a story first and foremost because of the relation¬ 
ship they strike to the protagonist and the way each helps to delin¬ 
eate the dimensions of the protagonist’s complex nature. Imagine a 
cast as a kind of solar system with the protagonist as the sun, sup¬ 
porting roles as planets around the sun, bit players as satellites 
around the planets—all held in orbit by the gravitational pull of the 
star at the center, each pulling at the tides of the others’ natures. 

Consider this hypothetical protagonist: He’s amusing and opti¬ 
mistic, then morose and cynical; he’s compassionate, then cruel; 
fearless, then fearful. This four-dimensional role needs a cast 
around him to delineate his contradictions, characters toward 
whom he can act and react in different ways at different times and 
places. These supporting characters must round him out so that 
his complexity is both consistent and credible. 

Character A, for example, provokes the protagonist’s sadness 
and cynicism, while Character B brings out his witty, hopeful side. 
Character C inspires his loving and courageous emotions, while 
Character D forces him first to cower in fear, then to strike out in 
fury. The creation and design of characters A, B, C, and D is dic¬ 
tated by the needs of the protagonist. They are what they are princi¬ 
pally to make clear and believable, through action and reaction, the 
complexity of the central role. 

Although supporting roles must be scaled back from the pro¬ 
tagonist, they too may be complex. Character A could be two- 
dimensional: outwardly beautiful and loving/inwardly grotesque 
as choices under pressure reveal cold, mutated desires. Even one 


dimension can create an excellent supporting role. Character B 
could, like the Terminator, have a single yet fascinating contradic¬ 
tion: machine versus human. If the Terminator were merely a 
robot or a man from the future, he might not be interesting. But 
he's both, and his machine/human dimension makes a superb 

The physical and social world in which a character is found, his 
or her profession or neighborhood, for example, is an aspect of 
characterization. Dimension, therefore, can be created by a simple 
counterpoint: Placing a conventional personality against an exotic 
background, or a strange, mysterious individual within an ordi¬ 
nary, down-to-earth society immediately generates interest. 

Bit parts should be drawn deliberately flat. . . but not dull. Give 
each a freshly observed trait that makes the role worth playing for 
the moment the actor’s onscreen, but no more. 


For example, suppose your protagonist is visiting New York 
City for the first time, and as she steps out of Kennedy Airport, she 
can’t wait for her first ride with a New York taxi driver. How to 
write that role? Do you make him a philosophizing eccentric with a 
baseball cap sideways on his head? I hope not. For the last six 
decades every time we get in a cab in a New York movie, there he 
is, the kooky New York cab driver. 

Perhaps you create the screen’s first silent New York cab driver. 
She tries to start New York conversations about the Yankees, the 
Knicks, the mayor’s office, but he just straightens his tie and drives 
on. She slumps back, her first New York disappointment. 

On the other hand, the cab driver to end all cab drivers: a gravel¬ 
voiced but wonderfully obliging oddball who gives her a definitive tuto¬ 
rial in big-city survival—how to wear her purse strap across her chest, 
where to keep her mace can. Then he drives her to the Bronx, charges 
her a hundred and fifty bucks and tells her she’s in Manhattan. He 
comes on helpful, turns into a thieving rat—a contradiction between 
characterization and deep character. Now we’ll be looking all over the 
film for this guy because we know that writers don’t put dimensions in 
characters they’re not going to use again. If this cabby doesn’t show up 
at least once more, we’ll be very annoyed. Don’t cause false anticipa¬ 
tion by making bit parts more interesting than necessary. 

The cast orbits around the star, its protagonist. Supporting 
roles are inspired by the central character and designed to delineate 
his complex of dimensions. Secondary roles need not only the pro¬ 
tagonists but also one another, to bring out their dimensions. As 
tertiary characters (E and F on the diagram) have scenes with the 
protagonist or other principals, they also help reveal dimensions. 
Ideally, in every scene each character brings out qualities that mark 
the dimensions of the others, all held in constellation by the weight 
of the protagonist at the center. 

The Comic Character 

All characters pursue desire against forces of antagonism. But the 
dramatic character is flexible enough to step back from the risk and 


realize: “This could get me killed.” Not the comic character. The 
comic character is marked by a blind obsession. The first step to 
solving the problem of a character who should be funny but isn’t is 
to find his mania. 

When the political satires of Aristophanes and farcical 
romances of Menander passed into history, Comedy degenerated 
into the ribald, peasant cousin of Tragedy and Epic Poetry. But 
with the coming of the Renaissance—from Goldoni in Italy to 
Moliere in France (skipping Germany) to Shakespeare, Jonson, 
Wycherley, Congreve, Sheridan; through Shaw, Wilde, Coward, 
Chaplin, Allen, the crackling wits of England, Ireland, and 
America—it ascended into the gleaming art of today—the saving 
grace of modern life. 

As these masters perfected their art, like all craftsmen, they 
talked shop and came to realize that a comic character is created by 
assigning the role a “humour,” an obsession the character does not 
see. Moliere’s career was built on writing plays ridiculing the pro¬ 
tagonist's fixation —The Miser , The Imaginary Invalid, The Misan¬ 
thrope. Almost any obsession will do. Shoes, for example. Imelda 
Marcos is an international joke because she doesn’t see her neu¬ 
rotic need for shoes, by some estimates over three thousand pairs. 
Although in her tax trial here in New York she said it was only 
twelve hundred . . . and none fit. They’re gifts from shoe compa¬ 
nies, she claimed, who never get the size right. 

In All in the Family Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) was a 
blindly obsessed bigot. As long as he doesn’t see it, he’s a buffoon 
and we laugh at him. But if he were to turn to someone and say, 
“You know, I am a racist hate monger,” the comedy is over. 

A SHOT IN THE DARK: A chauffeur is murdered on the estate 
of Benjamin Ballon (George Saunders). Enter a man obsessed with 
being the world’s most perfect detective, Captain Clouseau (Peter 
Sellers), who decides that Ballon did the deed and confronts the bil¬ 
lionaire in the billiards room. As Clouseau lays out his evidence, he 
rips the felt on the pool table and smashes the cues, finally sum¬ 
ming up with: “. . . and zen you killed him in a rit of fealous jage.” 
Clouseau turns to leave but walks around the wrong side of the 


door. We hear THUMP as he hits the wall. He steps back and with 
cool contempt, says, “Stupid architects.” 

A FISH CALLED WANDA: Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis), a master 
criminal, is obsessed with men who speak foreign languages. Otto 
(Kevin Kline), a failed CIA agent, is convinced he's an intellec¬ 
tual—although, as Wanda points out, he makes mistakes such as 
thinking that the London Underground is a political movement. 
Ken (Michael Palin) is so obsessed with a love of animals that Otto 
tortures him by eating his goldfish. Archie Leach (John Cleese) has 
an obsessive fear of embarrassment, a fear, he tells us, that grips 
the whole English nation. Midway through the film, however, 
Archie realizes his obsession and once he sees it, he turns from 
comic protagonist to romantic lead, from Archie Leach to “Cary 
Grant.” (Archie Leach was Cary Grant's real name.) 

Three Tips on Writing Characters for the Screen 
1. Leave room for the actor. 

This old Hollywood admonition asks the writer to provide each 
actor with the maximum opportunity to use his or her creativity; 
not to overwrite and pepper the page with constant description of 
behaviors, nuances of gesture, tones of voice: 

Bob leans on the lectern, crossing one leg over the other, one 
arm akimbo. He looks out over the heads of the students, 
arching an eyebrow thoughtfully: 



Blaa, blaa, blaa, blaa, blaa 

An actor’s reaction to a script saturated with that kind of detail 
is to toss it in the trash, thinking, “They don't want an actor, they 
want a puppet.” Or if the actor accepts the role, he’ll take a red 
pencil and scratch all that nonsense off the page. The details above 


are meaningless. An actor wants to know: What do I want? Why do 
I want it? How do I go about getting it? What stops me? What are 
the consequences? The actor brings a character to life from the 
subtext out: desire meeting forces of antagonism. On-camera he'll 
say and do what the scene requires, but characterization must be 
his work as much as or more than yours. 

We must remember that, unlike the theatre where we hope our 
work will be performed in hundreds, if not thousands of produc¬ 
tions, here and abroad, now and into the future, on screen there 
will be only one production, only one performance of each char¬ 
acter fixed on film forever. Writer/actor collaboration begins when 
the writer stops dreaming of a fictional face and instead imagines 
the ideal casting. If a writer feels that a particular actor would be 
his ideal protagonist and he envisions her while he writes, he'll be 
constantly reminded of how little superb actors need to create pow¬ 
erful moments, and won’t write this: 

(offering Jack a 

Would you like this cup of 
coffee, darling? 

The audience sees it’s a cup of coffee; the gesture says, “Would 
you like this?”; the actress is feeling “darling . . Sensing that less 
is more, the actress will turn to her director and say: “Larry, do I 
have to say ‘Would you like this cup of coffee, darling?’ I mean, I’m 
offering the damn cup, right? Could we just cut that line?" The line 
is cut, the actress sets the screen on fire silently offering a man a 
cup of coffee, while the screenwriter rages, “They’re butchering my 

2. Fall in love with all your characters. 

We often see films with a cast of excellent characters . . . except 
one, who's dreadful. We wonder why until we realize that the 
writer hates this character. He’s trivializing and insulting this role 


at every opportunity. And I’ll never understand this. How can a 
writer hate his own character? It’s his baby. How can he hate what 
he gave life? Embrace all your creations, especially the bad people. 
They deserve love like everyone else. 

Hurt and Cameron must have loved their Terminator. Look at 
the wonderful things they did for him: In a motel room he repairs a 
damaged eye with an Exacto knife. Standing over a sink, he pries 
his eyeball out of his head, drops it in the water, mops up the blood 
with a towel, puts on Gargoyle sunglasses to hide the hole, then 
looks in the mirror and smooths down his tangled hair. The 
stunned audience thinks, “He just pried his eyeball out of his head 
and he gives a damn what he looks like. He’s got vanity!” 

Then a knock at the door. As he looks up, the camera takes his 
POV and we see his computer screen super-imposed over the door. 
On it is a list of responses to someone knocking: “Go away,” “Please 
come back later,” “Fuck off,” “Fuck off, asshole.” His cursor goes up 
and down while he makes his choice and stops at “Fuck off, ass¬ 
hole.” A robot with a sense of humor. Now the monster's all the 
more terrifying, for thanks to these moments we have no idea of 
what to expect from him, and therefore imagine the worst. Only 
writers who love their characters discover such moments. 

A hint about villains: If your character’s up to no good and you 
place yourself within his being, asking, “If I were he in this situa¬ 
tion, what would I do?,” you'd do everything possible to get away 
with it. Therefore, you would not act like a villain; you would not 
twist your mustache. Sociopaths are the most charming folks we 
ever meet—sympathetic listeners who seem so deeply concerned 
about our problems while they lead us to hell. 

An interviewer once remarked to Lee Marvin that he’d played 
villains for thirty years and how awful it must be always playing 
bad people. Marvin smiled, “Me? I don’t play bad people. I play 
people struggling to get through their day, doing the best they can 
with what life's given them. Others may think they’re bad, but no, I 
never play bad people.” That’s why Marvin could be a superb vil¬ 
lain. He was a craftsman with a deep understanding of human 
nature: No one thinks they’re bad. 


If you can’t love them, don’t write them. On the other hand, 
permit neither your empathy nor antipathy for a character to pro¬ 
duce melodrama or stereotype. Love them all without losing your 

3. Character is self-knowledge. 

Everything I learned about human nature I learned from me. 

—Anton Chekhov 

Where do we find our characters? Partly through observation. 
Writers often carry notepads or pocket tape recorders and as they 
watch life’s passing show, collect bits and pieces to fill file cabinets 
with random material. When they’re dry, they dip in for ideas to 
stir the imagination. 

We observe, but it's a mistake to copy life directly to the page. 
Few individuals are as clear in their complexity and as well delin¬ 
eated as a character. Instead, like Dr. Frankenstein, we build char¬ 
acters out of parts found. A writer takes the analytical mind of his 
sister and pieces it together with the comic wit of a friend, adds to 
that the cunning cruelty of a cat and the blind persistence of King 
Lear. We borrow bits and pieces of humanity, raw chunks of imagi¬ 
nation and observation from wherever they’re found, assemble 
them into dimensions of contradiction, then round them into the 
creatures we call characters. 

Observation is our source of characterizations, but under¬ 
standing of deep character is found in another place. The root of all 
fine character writing is self-knowledge. 

One of the sad truths of life is that there’s only one person in 
this vale of tears that we ever really know, and that’s ourselves. 
We’re essentially and forever alone. Yet, although others remain 
at a distance, changing and unknowable in a definitive, final 
sense, and despite the obvious distinctions of age, sex, back¬ 
ground, and culture, despite all the clear differences among 
people, the truth is we are all far more alike than we are different. 
We are all human. 


We all share the same crucial human experiences. Each of us is 
suffering and enjoying, dreaming and hoping of getting through 
our days with something of value. As a writer, you can be certain 
that everyone coming down the street toward you, each in his own 
way, is having the same fundamental human thoughts and feelings 
that you are. This is why when you ask yourself, “If I were this 
character in these circumstances, what would I do?” the honest 
answer is always correct. You would do the human thing. There¬ 
fore, the more you penetrate the mysteries of your own humanity, 
the more you come to understand yourself, the more you are able 
to understand others. 

When we survey the parade of characters that has marched out 
of the imaginations of storytellers from Homer to Shakespeare, 
Dickens, Austen, Hemingway, Williams, Wilder, Bergman, Goldman, 
and all other masters—each character fascinating, unique, sub¬ 
limely human and so many, many of them—and realize that all 
were born of a single humanity . . .it’s astounding. 



All the creativity and labor that goes into designing story and char¬ 
acter must finally be realized on the page. This chapter looks at the 
text, at dialogue and description, and the craft that guides their 
writing. Beyond text, it examines the poetics of story, the Image 
Systems embedded in words that ultimately result in filmic images 
that enrich meaning and emotion. 

Dialogue is not conversation. 

Eavesdrop on any coffee shop conversation and you'll realize in a 
heartbeat you'd never put that slush onscreen. Real conversation is 
full of awkward pauses, poor word choices and phrasing, non 
sequiturs, pointless repetitions; it seldom makes a point or achieves 
closure. But that’s okay because conversation isn’t about making 
points or achieving closure. It’s what psychologists call “keeping the 
channel open.” Talk is how we develop and change relationships. 

When two friends meet on the street and talk about the weather, 
don't we know that theirs isn’t a conversation about the weather? 
What is being said? “I’m your friend. Let’s take a minute out of our 
busy day and stand here in each other’s presence and reaffirm that 
we are indeed friends.” They might talk about sports, weather, shop¬ 
ping . . . anything. But the text is not the subtext. What is said and 
done is not what is thought and felt. The scene is not about what it 

THE TEXT * 389 

seems to be about. Screen dialogue, therefore, must have the swing 
of everyday talk but content well above normal. 

First, screen dialogue requires compression and economy. 
Screen dialogue must say the maximum in the fewest possible 
words. Second, it must have direction. Each exchange of dialogue 
must turn the beats of the scene in one direction or another across 
the changing behaviors, without repetition. Third, it should have 
purpose. Each line or exchange of dialogue executes a step in 
design that builds and arcs the scene around its Turning Point. All 
this precision, yet it must sound like talk, using an informal and 
natural vocabulary, complete with contractions, slang, even, if nec¬ 
essary, profanity. “Speak as common people do," Aristotle advised, 
“but think as wise men do.” 

Remember, film is not a novel; dialogue is spoken and gone. If 
words aren't grasped the instant they leave the actor’s mouth, 
annoyed people suddenly whisper, “What did he say?" Nor is film 
theatre. We watch a movie; we hear a play. The aesthetics of film 
are 80 percent visual, 20 percent auditory. We want to see, not hear 
as our energies go to our eyes, only half-listening to the soundtrack. 
Theatre is 80 percent auditory, 20 percent visual. Our concentra¬ 
tion is directed through our ears, only half-looking at the stage. The 
playwright may spin elaborate and ornate dialogue—but not the 
screenwriter. Screen dialogue demands short, simply constructed 
sentences—generally, a movement from noun to verb to object or 
from noun to verb to complement in that order. 

Not, for example: “Mr. Charles Wilson Evans, the chief finan¬ 
cial officer at Data Corporation in the 666 building on Fifth 
Avenue in Manhattan, who was promoted to that position six years 
ago, having graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Business 
School, was arrested today, accused by the authorities of embezzle¬ 
ment from the company’s pension fund and fraud in his efforts to 
conceal the losses." But with a polish: “You know Charlie Evans? 
CFO at Data Corp? Ha! Got busted. Had his fist in the till. Harvard 
grad ought to know how to steal and get away with it.” The same 
ideas broken into a series of short, simply constructed, informally 
spoken sentences, and bit by bit the audience gets it. 


Dialogue doesn't require complete sentences. We don’t always 
bother with a noun or a verb. Typically, as above, we drop the 
opening article or pronoun, speaking in phrases, even grunts. 

Read your dialogue out loud or, better yet, into a tape recorder 
to avoid tongue twisters or accidental rhymes and alliterations such 
as: “They're moving their car over there.” Never write anything that 
calls attentions to itself as dialogue, anything that jumps off the 
page and shouts: “Oh, what a clever line am I!” The moment you 
think you’ve written something that’s particularly fine and lit¬ 
erary—cut it. 

Short Speeches 

The essence of screen dialogue is what was known in Classical 
Greek theatre as stikomythia —the rapid exchange of short 
speeches. Long speeches are antithetical with the aesthetics of 
cinema. A column of dialogue from top to bottom of a page asks 
the camera to dwell on an actor’s face for a talking minute. Watch a 
second hand crawl around the face of a clock for a full sixty seconds 
and you’ll realize that a minute is a long time. Within ten or fifteen 
seconds the audience’s eye absorbs everything visually expressive 
and the shot becomes redundant. It’s the same effect as a stuck 
record repeating the same note over and over. When the eye is 
bored, it leaves the screen; when it leaves the screen, you lose the 

The literary ambitious often shrug this problem off, thinking 
the editor can break up long speeches by cutting to the listening 
face. But this only introduces new problems. Now an actor is 
speaking offscreen, and when we disembody a voice, the actor 
must slow down and overarticulate because the audience, in effect, 
lip-reads. Fifty percent of its understanding of what is being said 
comes from watching it being said. When the face disappears it 
stops listening. So offscreen speakers must carefully spit out words 
in the hope the audience won’t miss them. What’s more, a voice 
offscreen loses the subtext of the speaker. The audience has the 
subtext of the listener, but that may not be what it’s interested in. 

THE TEXT ♦ 39 I 

Therefore, be very judicious about writing long speeches. If, 
however, you feel that it's true to the moment for one character to 
carry all the dialogue while another remains silent, write the long 
speech, but as you do, remember that there's no such thing in life 
as a monologue. Life is dialogue, action/reaction. 

If, as an actor, I have a long speech that begins when another 
character enters and my first line is “You’ve kept me waiting,” how 
do I know what to say next until I see the reaction to my first 
words? If the other character's reaction is apologetic, his head goes 
down in embarrassment, that softens my next action and colors my 
lines accordingly. If, however, the other actor's reaction is antago¬ 
nistic, as he shoots me a dirty look, that may color my next lines 
with anger. How does anyone know from moment to moment 
what to say or do next until he senses the reaction to what he just 
did? He doesn’t know. Life is always action/reaction. No mono¬ 
logues. No prepared speeches. An improvisation no matter how we 
mentally rehearse our big moments. 

Therefore, show us that you understand film aesthetics by 
breaking long speeches into the patterns of action/reaction that 
shape the speaker’s behavior. Fragment the speech with silent reac¬ 
tions that cause the speaker to change the beat, such as this from 
AMADEUS as Salieri confesses to a priest: 


All I ever wanted was to sing 
to God. He gave me that 
longing. And then made me 
mute. Why? Tell me that. 

The Priest looks away, pained and embarrassed, so Salieri 
answers his own question rhetorically: 


If he didn’t want me to praise 
Him with music, why implant 
the desire . . . like a lust in 


my body and then deny me 
the talent? 

Or put parentheticals within dialogue for the same effect, such 
as this from later in the scene: 


You under stand, I was in love 
with the girl . . . 

(amused by his own 
choice of words) 

... or at least in lust. 

(seeing the priest 
look down at a 
crucifix held in his 

But I swear to you, I never 
laid a finger on her. Ho. 

(as the priest looks 
up, solemn, judg¬ 

All the same, I couldn’t bear 
to think of anyone else 
touching her. 

(angered at the 
thought of Mozart) 

Least of all . . . the creature. 

A character can react to himself, to his own thoughts and emo¬ 
tions, as does Salieri above. That too is part of the scene’s 
dynamics. Demonstrating on the page the action/reaction patterns 
within characters, between characters, between characters and the 
physical world projects the sensation of watching a film into the 
reader’s imagination and makes the reader understand that yours 
is not a film of talking heads. 

THE TEXT + 393 

The Suspense Sentence 

In ill-written dialogue useless words, especially prepositional phrases, 
float to the ends of sentences. Consequently, meaning sits some¬ 
where in the middle, but the audience has to listen to those last 
empty words and for that second or two they’re bored. What’s more, 
the actor across the screen wants to take his cue from that meaning 
but has to wait awkwardly until the sentence is finished. In life, we 
cut each other off, slicing the wiggling tails off each other's sen¬ 
tences, letting everyday conversation tumble. This is yet another 
reason why in production actors and directors rewrite dialogue, as 
they trim speeches to lift the scene’s energy and make the cueing 
rhythm pop. 

Excellent film dialogue tends to shape itself into the periodic 
sentence: "If you didn’t want me to do it, why’d you give me 
that. . Look? Gun? Kiss? The periodic sentence is the “suspense 
sentence.” Its meaning is delayed until the very last word, forcing 
both actor and audience to listen to the end of the line. Read again 
Peter Shaffer’s superb dialogue above and note that virtually every 
single line is a suspense sentence. 

The Silent Screenplay 

The best advice for writing film dialogue is don't. Never write a line of 
dialogue when you can create a visual expression. The first attack on 
every scene should be: How could I write this in a purely visual way 
and not have to resort to a single line of dialogue? Obey the Law of 
Diminishing Returns: The more dialogue you write, the less effect dia¬ 
logue has. If you write speech after speech, walking characters into 
rooms, sitting them in chairs and talking, talking, talking, moments of 
quality dialogue are buried under this avalanche of words. But if you 
write for the eye, when the dialogue comes, as it must, it sparks 
interest because the audience is hungry for it. Lean dialogue, in relief 
against what’s primarily visual, has salience and power. 

THE SILENCE: Ester and Anna (Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel 
Lindblom) are sisters living in a lesbian and rather sadomasochistic 


relationship. Ester is seriously ill with tuberculosis. Anna is 
bisexual, has an illegitimate child, and enjoys tormenting her older 
sister. They’re traveling home to Sweden, and the film takes place 
in a hotel during their journey. Bergman has written a scene in 
which Anna goes down to the hotel restaurant and allows herself to 
be seduced by a waiter in order to provoke her sister with this after¬ 
noon affair. The “waiter seduces the customer” scene . . . how 
would you write it? 

Does the waiter open a menu and recommend certain items? 
Ask her if she’s staying at the hotel? Traveling far? Compliment her 
on how she’s dressed? Ask her if she knows the city? Mention he’s 
getting off work and would love to show her the sights? Talk, talk . . . 

Here's what Bergman gave us: The waiter walks to the table 
and accidentally on purpose drops the napkin on the floor. As he 
bends to pick it up, he slowly sniffs and smells Anna from head to 
crotch to foot. She, in reaction, draws a long, slow, almost delirious 
breath. CUT TO: They’re in a hotel room. Perfect, isn’t it? Erotic, 
purely visual, not a word said or necessary. That’s screenwriting. 

Alfred Hitchcock once remarked, “When the screenplay has 
been written and the dialogue has been added, we’re ready to shoot.” 

Image is our first choice, dialogue the regretful second choice. 
Dialogue is the last layer we add to the screenplay. Make no mis¬ 
take, we all love great dialogue, but less is more. When a highly 
imagistic film shifts to dialogue, it crackles with excitement and 
delights the ear. 


Putting a Film in the Reader's Head 

Pity the poor screenwriter, for he cannot be a poet. He cannot use 
metaphor and simile, assonance and alliteration, rhythm and 
rhyme, synecdoche and metonymy, hyperbole and meiosis, the 
grand tropes. Instead, his work must contain all the substance of 
literature but not be literary. A literary work is finished and com¬ 
plete within itself. A screenplay waits for the camera. If not litera- 

THE TEXT + 395 

ture, what then is the screenwriter's ambition? To describe in such 
a way that as the reader turns pages, a film flows through the imag¬ 

No small task. The first step is to recognize exactly what it is we 
describe—the sensation of looking at the screen. Ninety percent of 
all verbal expression has no filmic equivalent. “He’s been sitting 
there for a long time” can’t be photographed. So we constantly dis¬ 
cipline the imagination with this question: What do I see on the 
screen? Then describe only what is photographic: Perhaps “He 
stubs out his tenth cigarette,” “He nervously glances at his watch,” 
or “He yawns, trying to stay awake” to suggest waiting a long time. 

Vivid Action in the Now 

The ontology of the screen is an absolute present tense in constant 
vivid movement. We write screenplay in the present tense because, 
unlike the novel, film is on the knife edge of the now—whether we 
flash back or forward, we jump to a new now. And the screen 
expresses relentless action. Even static shots have a sense of alive- 
ness, because although the imagery may not move, the audience’s 
eye constantly travels the screen, giving stationary images energy. 
And, unlike life, film is vivid. Occasionally, our daily routine may be 
broken by light glinting off a building, flowers in a shop window, or 
a woman's face in the crowd. But as we walk through our days we’re 
more inside our heads than out, half-seeing, half-hearing the world. 
The screen, however, is intensely vivid for hours on end. 

On the page vividness springs from the names of the things. 
Nouns are the names of objects; verbs the names of actions. To 
write vividly, avoid generic nouns and verbs with adjectives and 
adverbs attached and seek the name of the thing: Not “The car¬ 
penter uses a big nail,” but “The carpenter hammers a spike” “Nail” 
is a generic noun, “big” an adjective. The solid, Anglo-Saxon “spike” 
pops a vivid image in the reader’s mind, “nail” a blur. How big? 

The same applies to verbs. A typical line of nondescription: “He 
starts to move slowly across the room.” How does somebody “start” 
across a room on film? The character either crosses or takes a step and 


stops. And "move slowly”? “Slowly” is an adverb; “move” a vague, 
bland verb. Instead, name the action: “He pads across the room.” “He 
(ambles, strolls, moseys, saunters, drags himself, staggers, waltzes, 
glides, lumbers, tiptoes, creeps, slouches, shuffles, waddles, minces, 
trudges, teeters, lurches, gropes, hobbles) across the room.” All are 
slow but each vivid and distinctively different from the others. 

Eliminate “is” and “are” throughout. Onscreen nothing is in a 
state of being; story life is an unending flux of change, of becoming. 
Not: “There is a big house on a hill above a small town.” “There is,” 
“They are,” “It is,” “He/She is” are the weakest possible ways into 
any English sentence. And what's a “big house”? Chateau? 
Hacienda? A “hill”? Ridge? Bluff? A “small town”? Crossroads? 
Hamlet? Perhaps: “A mansion guards the headlands above the vil¬ 
lage.” With a Hemingwayesque shunning of Latinate and abstrate 
terms, of adjectives and adverbs, in favor of the most specific, active 
verbs and concrete nouns possible, even establishing shots come 
alive. Fine film description requires an imagination and a vocabulary. 

Eliminate all metaphor and simile that cannot pass this test: 
“What do I see (or hear) onscreen?” As Milos Forman observed, “In 
film, a tree is a tree.” “As if,” for example, is a trope that doesn’t 
exist onscreen. A character doesn't come through a door “as if.” He 
comes through the door—period. The metaphor “A mansion 
guards . . .” and simile “The door slams like a gunshot. . .” pass 
the test in that a mansion can be photographed from a foreground 
angle that gives the impression it shelters or guards a village below 
it; a door slam can crack the ear like a gunshot. In fact, in 
MISSING the sound effects of all door slams were done with gun¬ 
shots to subliminally increase tension as the conscious mind hears 
a door slam but the unconscious reacts to a gunshot. 

These, on the other hand, were found in submissions to the 
European Script Fund: “The sun sets like a tiger’s eye closing in 
the jungle,” and, “The road twists and knifes and gouges its way up 
the hillside, struggling until it reaches the rim, then disappears out 
of sight before bursting onto the horizon.” They are director traps, 
seductive but unphotographable. Although the European writers of 
these passages lack screenwriting discipline, they are ingenuously 

THE TEXT 4 397 

trying to be expressive; whereas American writers, out of cynicism 
and laziness, often resort to sarcasm: 

“BENNY, in his thirties, is a small, muscular Englishman with 
an air of mania that suggests that, at least once in his life, he’s 
bitten the head off a chicken.” And, “You guessed it. Here comes 
the sex scene. I’d write it, but my mother reads these things.” 
Amusing, but that’s what these writers want us to think so we don’t 
notice that they can’t or won’t write. They’ve resorted to bald telling 
masked by sarcasm because they haven't the craft, talent, or pride 
to create a scene that acts out the simplest of ideas. 

Eliminate “we see” and “we hear.” “We” doesn't exist. Once 
into the story ritual, the theatre could be empty for all we care. 
Instead, “We see” injects an image of the crew looking through the 
lens and shatters the script reader’s vision of the film. 

Eliminate all camera and editing notations. In the same way 
actors ignore behavioral description, directors laugh at RACK 
efforts to direct the film from the page. If you write TRACK ON, 
does the reader see a film flowing through his imagination? No. 
He now sees a film being made. Delete CUT TO, SMASH CUT TO, 
LAP DISSOLVE TO, and other transitions. The reader assumes 
that all changes of angle are done on a cut. 

The contemporary screenplay is a Master Scene work that 
includes only those angles absolutely necessary to the telling of the 
story and no more. For example: 


Jack enters, dropping his briefcase on the antique chair next 
to the door. He notices a note propped up on the dining room 
table. Strolling over, he picks up the note, tears it open, and 
reads. Then crumpling the note, he drops into a chair, head in 

If the audience knows the contents of the note from a pre¬ 
vious scene, then the description stays on Jack reading 


and slumping into a chair. If, however, it’s vital that the 
audience read the note with Jack or it wouldn’t be able 
follow the story, then: 


Jack enters, dropping his briefcase on the antique chair next 
to the door. He notices a note propped up on the dining room 
table. Strolling over, he picks it up and tears it open. 


Calligraphic handwriting reads: Jack, I’ve packed and left. Do 
not try to contact me. I have a lawyer. She will be in touch. 


Jack crumples the note and drops into a chair, head in hands. 

Another example: If, as Jack sits, head in hands, he were 
to hear a car pull outside and hurry to a window, and it’s 
critical to audience comprehension that they see what 
Jack sees at that moment, then continuing from above: 


Jack crumples the note and drops into a chair, head in hands. 
Suddenly, a car PULLS UP outside. He hurries to the window. 

through the curtains to the curb. Barbara gets out of her sta¬ 
tion wagon, opens the hatch and takes out suitcases. 

THE TEXT « 399 


turning from the window, hurling Barbara’s note across the room. 

If, however, the audience would assume that car pulling 
up is Barbara coming back to Jack because she’s done it 
twice before and Jack’s angry reaction says it all, then the 
description would stay on the Master Shot of Jack in the 
dining room. 

Beyond the essential storytelling angles, however, the 
Master Scene screenplay gives the writer a strong influence 
on the film’s direction. Instead of labeling angles, the writer 
suggests them by breaking single-spaced paragraphs into 
units of description with images and language subtly indi¬ 
cating camera distance and composition. For example: 


Jack enters and looks around the empty room. Lifting his 
briefcase above his head, he drops it with a THUMP on the 
fragile, antique chair next to the door. He listens. Silence. 

Pleased with himself, he ambles for the kitchen, when sud¬ 
denly he’s brought up short. 

A note with his name on it sits propped against the rose-filled 
vase on the dinning table. 

Nervously he twists his wedding ring. 

Taking a breath, he strolls over, picks up the note, tears it 
open, and reads. 

Rather than writing the above into a thick block of single 
spaced prose, lines of white split it into five units that suggest in 


order: A wide angle covering most of the room, a moving shot 
through the room, a close-up on the note, an even tighter close-up 
on Jack’s ring finger, and a medium follow-shot to the table. 

The briefcase insult to Barbara’s antique chair and Jack’s ner¬ 
vous gesture with his wedding ring express his shifts of feeling. 
Actor and director are always free to improvise new business of 
their own, but the miniparagraphs lead the reader’s inner eye 
through a pattern of action/reaction between Jack and the room, 
Jack and his emotions, Jack and his wife as represented in her note. 
That’s the life of the scene. Now director and actor must capture it 
under the influence of this pattern. How exactly will be their creative 
tasks. In the meantime, the effect of the Master Scene technique is a 
readability that translates into the sensation of watching a film. 


The Screenwriter As Poet 

“Pity the poor screenwriter, for he cannot be a poet” is not in fact 
true. Film is a magnificent medium for the poet’s soul, once the 
screenwriter understands the nature of story poetics and its work¬ 
ings within a film. 

Poetic does not mean pretty. Decorative images of the kind that 
send audiences out of disappointing films muttering “but it’s beau¬ 
tifully photographed” are not poetic. THE SHELTERING SKY: Its 
human content is aridity, a desperate meaninglessness—what was 
once called an existential crisis, and the novel’s desert setting was 
metaphor for the barrenness of the protagonists’ lives. The film, 
however, glowed with the postcard glamour of a tourist agency trav¬ 
elogue, and little or nothing of the suffering at its heart could be 
felt. Pretty pictures are appropriate if the subject is pretty: THE 

Rather, poetic means an enhanced expressivity. Whether a story’s 
content is beautiful or grotesque, spiritual or profane, quietistic or 
violent, pastoral or urban, epic or intimate, it wants full expression. 
A good story well told, well directed and acted, and perhaps a good 

THE TEXT 4 401 

film. All that plus an enrichment and deepening of the work’s 
expressivity through its poetics, and perhaps a great film. 

To begin with, as audience in the ritual of story, we react to 
every image, visual or auditory, symbolically. We instinctively sense 
that each object has been selected to mean more than itself and so 
we add a connotation to every denotation. When an automobile 
pulls into a shot, our reaction is not a neutral thought such as 
“vehicle”; we give it a connotation. We think, “Huh. Mercedes . . . 
rich. Or, “Lamborghini. . . foolishly rich.” “Rusted-out Volkswagen 
. . . artist.” “Harley-Davidson . . . dangerous.” “Red Trans-Am . . . 
problems with sexual identity." The storyteller then builds on this 
natural inclination in the audience. 

The first step in turning a well-told story into a poetic work is to 
exclude 90 percent of reality. The vast majority of objects in the 
world have the wrong connotations for any specific film. So the 
spectrum of possible imagery must be sharply narrowed to those 
objects with appropriate implications. 

In production, for example, if a director wants a vase added to a 
shot, this prompts an hour’s discussion, and a critical one. What 
kind of vase? What period? What shape? Color? Ceramic, metal, 
wood? Are there flowers in it? What kind? Where located? Fore¬ 
ground? Mid-ground? Background? Upper left of the shot? Lower 
right? In or out of focus? Is it lit? Is it touched as a prop? Because 
this isn’t just a vase, it’s a highly charged, symbolic object res¬ 
onating meaning to every other object in the shot and forward and 
backward through the film. Like all works of art, a film is a unity in 
which every object relates to every other image or object. 

Limited to what’s appropriate, the writer then empowers the film 
with an Image System, or systems, for there are often more than one. 

An IMAGE SYSTEM is a strategy of motifs, a category of 
imagery embedded in the film that repeats in sight and 
sound from beginning to end with persistence and great 
variation, but with equally great subtlety, as a subliminal 
communication to increase the depth and complexity of 
aesthetic emotion. 


“Category” means a subject drawn from the physical world that's 
broad enough to contain sufficient variety. For example, a dimension 
of nature—animals, the seasons, light and dark—or a dimension of 
human culture—buildings, machines, art. This category must repeat 
because one or two isolated symbols have little effect. But the power 
of an organized return of images is immense, as variety and repeti¬ 
tion drive the Image System to the seat of the audience's uncon¬ 
scious. Yet, and most important, a film’s poetics must be handled with 
virtual invisibility and go consciously unrecognized. 

An Image System is created one of two ways, via External or 
Internal Imagery. External Imagery takes a category that outside the 
film already has a symbolic meaning and brings it in to mean the 
same thing in the film it means outside the film: for example, to use 
the national flag—a symbol of patriotism and love of country—to 
mean patriotism, love of country. In ROCKY IV, for example, after 
Rocky defeats the Russian boxer, he wraps himself in a massive 
American flag. Or to use a crucifix, a symbol of love of God and reli¬ 
gious feelings, to mean love of God, religious feelings; a spider’s 
web to mean entrapment; a teardrop to mean sadness. External 
Imagery, I must point out, is the hallmark of the student film. 

Internal Imagery takes a category that outside the film may or 
may not have a symbolic meaning attached but brings it into the 
film to give it an entirely new meaning appropriate to this film and 
this film alone. 

LES DIABOLIQUE: In 1955 director/screenwriter Henri- 
Georges Clouzot adapted Pierre Boileau’s novel, Celle Qui N'etait 
Pas to the screen. In it Christina (Vera Clouzot) is an attractive 
young woman but very shy, quiet, and sensitive. She has suffered 
from a heart condition since childhood and is never in the best of 
health. Years before she inherited an impressive estate in the sub¬ 
urbs of Paris that has been turned into an exclusive boarding 
school. She runs this school with her husband, Michel (Paul 
Meurisse), a sadistic, abusive, malignant bastard who delights in 
treating his wife like dirt. He’s having an affair with one of the 
school’s teachers, Nicole (Simone Signoret), and he’s as vicious 
and cruel to his mistress as he is to his wife. 

THE TEXT + 403 

Everybody knows about this affair. In fact, the two women have 
become best friends, both suffering under the heel of this brute. 
Early in the film they decide that the only way out of their problem 
is to kill him. 

One night they lure Michel to an apartment in a village well 
away from the school where they've secretly filled a bathtub full of 
water. He comes in, dressed in his three-piece suit, and arrogantly 
taunts and insults his two women while they get him as drunk as 
they possibly can, then try to drown him in the bathtub. But he's 
not that drunk and it’s a hell of a struggle. The terror nearly kills 
the poor wife, but Nicole rushes into the living room and grabs a 
ceramic statue of a panther from the coffee table. She loads this 
heavy thing on the man’s chest. Between the weight of the statue 
and her own strength she manages to hold him down under the 
water long enough to drown him. 

The women wrap the body in a tarp, hide it in the back of a 
pickup truck, and sneak back to the campus in the middle of the 
night. The school’s swimming pool hasn’t been used all winter; an 
inch of algae covers the water. The women dump the body in and it 
submerges out of sight. They quickly retire and wait for the next 
day when the body will float up and be discovered. But the next day 
comes and goes and the body does not float up. Days go by and the 
body will not float up. 

Finally, Nicole accidentally on purpose drops her car keys in 
the pool and asks one of the older students to retrieve them. The 
kid dives down under the scum and searches and searches and 
searches. He comes up, gulps some air, then goes down again and 
searches and searches and searches. He comes up to gulp air, then 
goes down a third time and searches and searches and searches. At 
last he surfaces . . . with the car keys. 

The women then decide it’s time to clean the swimming pool. 
They order the pool drained and stand at its edge, watching as the 
scum goes down and down and down and down ... to the drain. 
But there is no body. That afternoon a dry cleaner's van drives out 
from Paris to deliver the cleaned and pressed suit that the man 
died in. The women rush into Paris to the cleaners where they find 


a receipt, and on it is the address of a boardinghouse. They head 
there and talk to a concierge who says, “Yes, yes, there was a man 
living here but... he moved this morning.” 

They go back to the school and even more bizarre things 
happen: Michel appears and disappears in the windows of the 
school. When they look at the senior class graduation photo, there 
he is standing behind the students, slightly out of focus. They can't 
imagine what's going on. Is he a ghost? Did he somehow survive 
the drowning and he’s doing this to us? Did someone else find the 
body? Are they doing this? 

Summer vacation comes and all the students and teachers 
leave. Then Nicole herself departs. She packs her bags, saying she 
can’t take this anymore, abandoning the poor wife alone. 

That evening Christina can’t sleep; she sits up in bed, wide 
awake, her heart pounding. Suddenly in the dead of night she 
hears the sound of typing coming from her husband’s office. She 
slowly gets up and edges down a long corridor, hand on her heart, 
but just as she touches the office doorknob, the typing stops. 

She eases open the door and there, alongside the typewriter, 
are her husband’s gloves . . . like two huge hands. Then she hears 
the most terrifying sound imaginable: dripping water. Now she 
heads toward the bathroom off the office, her heart raging. She 
creaks open the bathroom door and there he is—still in his three- 
piece suit, submerged in a bathtub full of water, the faucet drip- 

The body sits up, water cascades off. Its eyes open but there are 
no eyeballs. Hands reach out for her, she grabs her chest, has a 
fatal heart attack, and drops dead on the floor. Michel reaches 
under his eyelids and removes white plastic inserts. Nicole jumps 
out of a closet. They embrace and whisper, “We did it!” 

The opening titles of LES DIABOLIQUE look as if they’re over 
an abstract painting of grays and blacks. But suddenly, as titles end, 
a truck tire splashes from bottom to top of the screen and we 
realize we’ve been looking at the top angle view of a mud puddle. 
The camera comes up on a rainy landscape. From this first 
moment on, Image System “water” is continually and subliminally 

THE TEXT + 405 

repeated. It’s always drizzly and foggy. Condensation on windows 
runs in little drops to the sills. At dinner they eat fish. Characters 
drink wine and tea while Christina sips her heart medicine. When 
the teachers discuss summer vacation, they talk of going to the 
South of France to “take the waters.” Swimming pool, bathtubs . . . 
it's one of the dampest films ever made. 

Outside this film water is a universal symbol of all things posi¬ 
tive: sanctification, purification, the feminine—archetype for life 
itself. But Clouzot reverses these values until water takes on the 
power of death, terror, and evil, and the sound of a dripping faucet 
brings the audience up out of its seats. 

CASABLANCA weaves three Image Systems. Its primary motifs 
create a sense of imprisonment as the city of Casablanca becomes a 
virtual penitentiary. Characters whisper their “escape” plans as if the 
police were prison guards. The beacon on the airport tower moves 
through the streets like a searchlight scanning a prison compound, 
while window blinds, room dividers, stair railings, even the leaves of 
potted palms create shadows like the bars of prison cells. 

The second system builds a progression from the particular to 
the archetypal. Casablanca starts as a refugee center but becomes a 
mini-United Nations filled with not only Arab and European faces 
but Asian and African ones as well. Rick and his friend Sam are the 
only Americans we meet. Repeated images, including dialogue in 
which characters speak to Rick as if he were a country, associate 
Rick to America until he comes to symbolize America itself and 
Casablanca the world. Like the United States in 1941 Rick is stead¬ 
fastly neutral, wanting no part in yet another World War. His con¬ 
version to the fight subliminally congratulates America for finally 
taking sides against tyranny. 

The third system is one of linking and separating. A number of 
images and compositions within the frame are used to link Rick and 
lisa, making the subliminal point that although these two are apart, 
they belong together. The counterpoint to this is a series of images 
and compositional designs that separate lisa from Laszlo, giving the 
opposite impression that although these two are together, they 
belong apart. 


THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY is a multiplot film with six 
story lines—three positive climaxes devoted to the father, three 
negative endings to his daughter—in a point/counterpoint design 
that interweaves no fewer than four Image Systems. The father’s 
stories are marked by open spaces, light, intellect, and verbal com¬ 
munication; the daughter’s conflicts are expressed in closed spaces, 
darkness, animal images, and sexuality. 

CHINATOWN also employs four systems, two of External 
Imagery, two of Internal Imagery. The primary internalized system 
is motifs of “blind seeing” or seeing falsely: Windows; rearview 
mirrors; eyeglasses, and particularly broken spectacles; cameras; 
binoculars; eyes themselves, and even the open, unseeing eyes of 
the dead, all gather tremendous forces to suggest that if we are 
looking for evil out in the world, we’re looking in the wrong direc¬ 
tion. It is in here. In us. As Mao Tse-tung once said, “History is the 
symptom, we are the disease.” 

The second internalized system takes political corruption and 
turns it into social cement. False contracts, subverted laws, and acts 
of corruption become that which hold society together and create 
“progress.” Two systems of External Imagery, water versus drought 
and sexual cruelty versus sexual love have conventional connota¬ 
tions but are used with a sharp-edged effectiveness. 

When ALIEN was released Time magazine ran a ten-page 
article with stills and drawings asking the question: Has Hollywood 
gone too far? For this film incorporates a highly erotic Image 
System and contains three vivid “rape” scenes. 

When Gail Anne Hurd and James Cameron made the sequel, 
ALIENS, they not only switched genres from Horror to 
Action)Adventure, they reinvented the Image System to motherhood 
as Ripley becomes the surrogate mother of the child Newt (Carrie 
Henn), who in turn is the surrogate mother of her broken doll. The 
two are up against the most terrifying “mother” in the universe, the 
gigantic monster queen who lays her eggs in a womblike nest. In 
dialogue, Ripley remarks, “The monsters make you pregnant.” 

AFTER HOURS works on only one internalized refrain but 
with a rich variety: Art. But not as the ornament of life. Rather, art 

THE TEXT + 407 

as a weapon. The art and artists of Manhattan's Soho district con¬ 
stantly assault the protagonist, Paul (Griffin Dunne), until he's 
encapsulated inside a work of art and stolen by Cheech and Chong. 

Going back through the decades, Hitchcock’s Thrillers combine 
images of religiosity with sexuality, while John Ford’s Westerns 
counterpoint wilderness with civilization. In fact, traveling back 
through the centuries we realize that Image Systems are as old as 
story itself. Homer invented beautiful motifs for his epics, as did 
Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides for their plays. Shakespeare 
submerged a unique Image System into each of his works, as did 
Melville, Poe, Tolstoy, Dickens, Orwell, Hemingway, Ibsen, Chekhov, 
Shaw, Beckett—all great novelists and playwrights have embraced 
this principle. 

And who, after all, invented screenwriting? Novelists and play¬ 
wrights who came to the cradles of our art in Hollywood, London, 
Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, and Moscow to write the scenarios of silent 
films. Film’s first major directors, such as D. W. Griffith, Eisen- 
stein, and Murnau, did their apprenticeship in the theatre; they too 
realized that, like a fine play, a film can be taken to the sublime by 
the repetition of a subliminal poetics. 

And an Image System must be subliminal. The audience is not 
to be aware of it. Years ago as I watched Bunuel’s VIRIDIANA, I 
noticed that Bunuel had introduced an Image System of rope; A 
child jump ropes, a rich man hangs himself with a rope, a poor 
man uses rope as a belt. About the fifth time a piece of rope came 
on the screen the audience shouted in unison, “Symbol!” 

Symbolism is powerful, more powerful than most realize, as 
long as it bypasses the conscious mind and slips into the uncon¬ 
scious. As it does while we dream. The use of symbolism follows 
the same principle as scoring a film. Sound doesn’t need cognition, 
so music can deeply affect us when we’re unconscious of it. In the 
same way, symbols touch us and move us —as long as we don't rec¬ 
ognize them as symbolic. Awareness of a symbol turns it into a neu¬ 
tral, intellectual curiosity, powerless and virtually meaningless. 

Why, then, do so many contemporary writer/directors label 
their symbols? The hamhanded treatment of “symbolic” images in 


the remake of CAPE FEAR, BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, and 
THE PIANO, to name three of the more barefaced examples. I can 
think of two likely reasons: First, to flatter the elite audience of self- 
perceived intellectuals that watches at a safe, unemotional distance 
while collecting ammunition for the postfilm ritual of cafe criti¬ 
cism. Second, to influence, if not control, critics and the reviews 
they write. Declamatory symbolism requires no genius, just ego¬ 
tism ignited by misreadings of Jung and Derrida. It is a vanity that 
demeans and corrupts the art. 

Some argue that the film's Image System is the director’s work 
and that he or she alone should create it. And I’ve no argument 
with that, for ultimately the director is responsible for every square 
inch of every shot in the film. Except. . . how many working direc¬ 
tors understand what I’ve explained above? Few. Perhaps two 
dozen in the world today. Just the very best, while, unfortunately, 
the vast majority cannot tell the difference between decorative and 
expressive photography. 

I argue that the screenwriter should begin the film’s Image 
System and the director and designers finish it. It’s the writer who 
first envisions the ground of all imagery, the story’s physical and 
social world. Often, as we write, we discover that spontaneously 
we’ve already begun the work, that a pattern of imagery has found 
its way into our descriptions and dialogue. As we become aware of 
that, we devise variations and quietly embroider them into the story. 
If an Image System doesn’t arrive on its own, we invent one. The 
audience won’t care how we do it; it only wants the story to work. 


A film’s title is the marketing centerpiece that “positions” the audi¬ 
ence, preparing it for the experience ahead. Screenwriters, there¬ 
fore, cannot indulge in literary, nontitle titles: TESTAMENT, for 
example, is actually a film about postnuclear holocaust; LOOKS 
AND SMILES portrays desolate lives on welfare. My favorite non¬ 
the working title I always use until I figure out the title. 

THE TEXT « 409 

To title means to name. An effective title points to something 
solid that is actually in the story—character, setting, theme, or 
genre. The best titles often name two or all elements at once. 

JAWS names a character, sets the story in the wilds, and gives 
us the theme, man against nature, in the Action(Adventure genre. 
KRAMER VS. KRAMER names two characters, a divorce theme, 
and Domestic Drama. STAR WARS titles an epic conflict of galactic 
warriors. PERSONA suggests a cast of psychologically troubled 
characters and a theme of hidden identities. LA DOLCE VITA 
places us in a decadent setting among the urban rich. MY BEST 
FRIEND'S WEDDING establishes characters, setting, and Romantic 

A title, of course, isn’t the only marketing consideration. As the 
legendary Harry Cohn once observed, “MOGAMBO is a terrible 
title. MOGAMBO, starring Clark Gable and Ava Gardner, is a great 
f. . . ing title.” 



Professional writers may or may not receive critical acclaim, but 
they’re in control of the craft, have access to their talent, improve 
their performance over the years, and make a living from the art. A 
struggling writer may at times produce quality, but from day to day 
he cannot make his talent perform when and as he wants, doesn’t 
progress in quality from story to story, and receives little, if any, 
income from his efforts. On the whole, the difference between 
those who succeed and those who struggle is their opposed 
methods of work: inside out versus outside in. 


The struggling writer tends to have a way of working that goes 
something like this: He dreams up an idea, noodles on it for a 
while, then rushes straight to the keyboard: 


Description, description, description. Characters A and B enter. 

Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. 


Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. 


Description, description, description, description, description. 

He imagines and writes, writes and dreams until he reaches 
page 120 and stops. Then he hands out Xerox copies to friends and 
back come their reactions: “Oh, it’s nice, and I love that scene in 
the garage when they threw paint all over each other, was that 
funny or what? And when the little kid came down at night in his 
pajamas, how sweet! The scene on the beach was so romantic, and 
when the car blew up, exciting. But I don’t know . . . there’s some¬ 
thing about the ending . . . and the middle . . . and the way it starts 
. . . that just doesn’t work for me.’’ 

So the struggling writer gathers friends’ reactions and his own 
thoughts to start the second draft with this strategy: “How can I 
keep the six scenes that I love and that everyone else loves and 
somehow pretzel this film through them in a way that’ll work?” 
With a little more thought he’s back at the keyboard: 


Description, description, description. Characters A and C enter 
while Character B watches from hiding. 

Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. 

Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. 

Description, description, description, description, description. 

He imagines and writes, writes and dreams, but all the while 
he clings like a drowning man to his favorite scenes until a rewrite 
comes out the other end. He makes copies and hands them out to 
friends and back come reactions: “It’s different, decidedly different. 
But I’m so glad you kept that scene in the garage and with the kid 
in his pajamas and the car on the beach . . . great scenes. But . . . 


there’s still something about that ending and the middle and the 
way it starts that just doesn't work for me.” 

The writer then does a third draft and a fourth and a fifth but the 
process is always the same: He dings to his favorite scenes, twisting a 
new telling through them in hopes of finding a story that works. 
Finally a year’s gone by and he’s burned out. He dedares the screen¬ 
play perfect and hands it to his agent, who reads it without enthu¬ 
siasm, but because he’s an agent, he does what he must. He too makes 
copies, papers Hollywood, and back come reader reports: “Very nicely 
written, good crisp, actable dialogue, vivid scene description, fine atten¬ 
tion to detail, the story sucks. PASS ON IT.” The writer blames the 
Philistine tastes of Hollywood and gears up for his next project. 


Successful writers tend to use the reverse process. If, hypothetically 
and optimistically, a screenplay can be written from first idea to last 
draft in six months, these writers typically spend the first four of 
those six months writing on stacks of three-by-five cards: a stack for 
each act—three, four, perhaps more. On these cards they create 
the story’s step-outline. 


As the term implies, a step-outline is the story told in steps. 

Using one- or two-sentence statements, the writer simply and 
clearly describes what happens in each scene, how it builds and 
turns. For example: “He enters expecting to find her at home, but 
instead discovers her note saying she’s left for good.” 

On the back of each card the writer indicates what step in the 
design of the story he sees this scene fulfilling—at least for the 
moment. Which scenes set up the Inciting Incident? Which is the 
Inciting Incident? First Act Climax? Perhaps a Mid-Act Climax? 
Second Act? Third? Fourth? Or more? He does this for Central Plot 
and subplots alike. 

He confines himself to a few stacks of cards for months on end 


for this critical reason: He wants to destroy his work. Taste and 
experience tell him that 90 percent of everything he writes, regard¬ 
less of his genius, is mediocre at best. In his patient search for 
quality, he must create far more material than he can use, then 
destroy it. He may sketch a scene a dozen different ways before 
finally throwing the idea of the scene out of the outline. He may 
destroy sequences, whole acts. A writer secure in his talent knows 
there’s no limit to what he can create, and so he trashes everything 
less than his best on a quest for a gem-quality story. 

This process, however, doesn’t mean the writer isn’t filling 
pages. Day after day a huge stack grows on the side of the desk: but 
these are biographies, the fictional world and its history, thematic 
notations, images, even snippets of vocabulary and idiom. Research 
and imaginings of all kinds fill a file cabinet while the story is disci¬ 
plined to the step-outline. 

Finally, after weeks or months, the writer discovers his Story 
Climax. With that in hand, he reworks, as needed, backward from 
it. At last he has a story. Now he goes to friends, but not asking for 
a day out of their lives—which is what we ask when we want a con¬ 
scientious person to read a screenplay. Instead he pours a cup of 
coffee and asks for ten minutes. Then he pitches his story. 

The writer never shows his step-outline to people because it’s a 
tool, too cryptic for anyone but the writer to follow. Instead, at this 
critical stage, he wants to tell or pitch his story so he can see it 
unfold in time, watch it play on the thoughts and feelings of 
another human being. He wants to look in that person’s eyes and 
see the story happen there. So he pitches and studies the reactions: 
Is my friend hooked by my Inciting Incident? Listening and 
leaning in? Or are his eyes wandering? Am I holding him as I build 
and turn the progressions? And when I hit the Climax, do I get a 
strong reaction of the kind I want? 

Any story pitched from its step-outline to an intelligent, sensi¬ 
tive person must be able to grab attention, hold interest for ten 
minutes, and pay it off by moving him to a meaningful, emotional 
experience—just as my LES DIABOLIQUE pitch hooked, held, 
and moved you. Regardless of genre, if a story can’t work in ten 


minutes, how will it work in no minutes? It won't get better when 
it gets bigger. Everything that's wrong with it in a ten-minute pitch 
is ten times worse onscreen. 

Until a good majority of listeners respond with enthusiasm, 
there’s no point going forward. “With enthusiasm” doesn’t mean 
people leap up and kiss you on both cheeks, rather they whisper 
“Wow” and fall silent. A fine work of art—music, dance, painting, 
story—has the power to silence the chatter in the mind and lift us 
to another place. When a story, pitched from a step-outline, is so 
strong it brings silence—no comments, no criticism, just a look of 
pleasure—that's a hell of a thing and time is too precious to waste 
on a story that hasn’t that power. Now the writer’s ready to move to 
the next stage—the treatment. 


To “treat” the step-outline, the writer expands each scene from its 
one or two sentences to a paragraph or more of double-spaced, pre¬ 
sent-tense, moment by moment description: 

Dining Room—Day Jack walks in and tosses his briefcase on the 
chair next to the door. He looks around. The room is empty. He 
calls her name. Gets no answer. He calls it again, louder and 
louder. Still no answer. As he pads to the kitchen, he sees a note on 
the table. Picks it up, reads it. The note says that she has left him 
for good. He drops in the chair, head in hands, and starts to cry. 

In treatment the writer indicates what characters talk about — 

“he wants her to do this, but she refuses," for example—but 
never writes dialogue. Instead, he creates the subtext—the true 
thoughts and feelings underneath what is said and done. We 
may think we know what our characters are thinking and 
feeling, but we don't know we know until we write it down: 

Dining Room—Day The door opens and Jack leans on the jamb, 
exhausted from a day of failed and frustrating work. He looks 


around the room, sees she’s not around, and hopes like hell she's 
out. He really doesn’t want to have to deal with her today. To be 
sure he has the house to himself, he calls her name. Gets no 
answer. Calls out louder and louder. Still no answer. Good. He’s 
finally alone. He lifts his briefcase high in the air drops it with a 
thud onto her precious Chippendale chair next to the door. She 
hates him for scratching her antiques but today he doesn’t give a 

Hungry, he heads for the kitchen, but as he crosses the room 
he notices a note on the dining-room table. It's one of those damn, 
annoying notes that she’s always leaving around, taped to the bath¬ 
room mirror or the refrigerator or whatever. Irritated, he picks it up 
and tears it open. Reading it, he discovers that she’s left him for 
good. As his legs go weak, he drops into a chair, a knot twisting in 
his gut. His head falls into his hands and he starts to cry. He's sur¬ 
prised by his outburst, pleased he can still feel some emotion. But 
his tears are not grief; they’re the dam breaking with relief that the 
relationship is finally over. 

• • • 

The forty to sixty scenes of a typical screenplay, treated to a 
moment by moment description of all action, underlaid with a full 
subtext of the conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings of 
all characters, will produce sixty, eight, ninety, or more double¬ 
spaced pages. In the studio system from the 1930s to the 1950s 
when producers ordered treatments from writers, they were often 
two hundred to three hundred pages long. The strategy of studio 
writers was to extract the screenplay from a much larger work so 
nothing would be overlooked or unthought. 

The ten- or twelve-page "treatments” that pass around show 
business today are not treatments but outlines given enough words 
that a reader can follow the story. A ten-page outline is not nearly 
enough material for a screenplay. Today’s writers may not return to 
the vast treatments of the studio system, but when a step-outline is 
expanded to a treatment of sixty to ninety pages, creative achieve¬ 
ment expands correspondingly. 

At the treatment stage, we inevitably discover that things we 


thought would work a certain way in the step-outline now want to 
change. Research and imagination never stop, and so the charac¬ 
ters and their world are still growing and evolving, leading us to 
revise any number of scenes. We won't change the overall design 
of the story because it worked every time we pitched it. But within 
that structure scenes may need to be cut, added, or reordered. We 
rework the treatment until every moment lives vividly, in text and 
subtext. That done, then and only then does the writer move to the 
screenplay itself. 


Writing a screenplay from a thorough treatment is a joy and often 
runs at a clip of five to ten pages per day. We now convert treatment 
description to screen description and add dialogue. And dialogue 
written at this point is invariably the finest dialogue we’ve ever 
written. Our characters have had tape over their mouths for so long, 
they can’t wait to talk, and unlike so many films in which all charac¬ 
ters speak with the same vocabulary and style, dialogue written after 
in-depth preparation creates character-specific voices. They don’t all 
sound like one another and they don’t all sound like the writer. 

At the first draft stage, changes and revisions will still be needed. 
When characters are allowed to speak, scenes in treatment you 
thought would work a certain way now want to alter direction. When 
you find such a fault, it can rarely be fixed with a simple rewrite of 
dialogue or behavior. Rather, you must go back into the treatment 
and rework the setups, then perhaps go beyond the faulty scene to 
redo the payoff. A number of polishes may be necessary until you 
reach the final draft. You must develop your judgment and taste, a 
nose for your own bad writing, then call upon a relentless courage to 
root out weaknesses and turn them into strengths. 

If you shortcut the process and rush straight to screenplay from 
outline, the truth is that your first draft is not a screenplay, it’s a 
surrogate treatment—a narrow, unexplored, unimprovised, tissue- 
thin treatment. Event choice and story design must be given free 
rein to consume your imagination and knowledge. Turning Points 


must be imagined, discarded, and reimagined, then played out in 
text and subtext. Otherwise you have little hope of achieving excel¬ 
lence. Now, how and when do you want to do that? In treatment or 
screenplay? Either may work, but, more often than not, screenplay 
is a trap. The wise writer puts off the writing of dialogue for as long 
as possible because the premature writing of dialogue chokes creativity. 

Writing from the outside in—writing dialogue in search of 
scenes, writing scenes in search of story— is the least creative 
method. Screenwriters habitually overvalue dialogue because they’re 
the only words we write that actually reach the audience. All else is 
assumed by the film’s images. If we type out dialogue before we 
know what happens , we inevitably fall in love with our words; we’re 
loath to play with and explore events, to discover how fascinating 
our characters might become, because it would mean cutting our 
priceless dialogue. All improvisation ceases and our so-called 
rewriting is tinkering with speeches. 

What's more, the premature writing of dialogue is the slowest 
way to work. It may send you in circles for years before you finally 
realize that not all your children are going to walk and talk their 
way to the screen; not every idea is worth being a motion picture. 
When do you want to find that out? Two years from now or two 
months from now? If you write the dialogue first, you’ll be blind to 
this truth and wander forever. If you write from the inside out, 
you’ll realize in the outline stage that you can’t get the story to 
work. Nobody likes it when pitched. In truth, you don’t like it. So 
you toss it in the drawer. Maybe years from now you’ll pick it up 
and solve it, but for now you go on to your next idea. 

As I offer this method to you, I’m fully aware that each of us, 
by trial and error, must find our own method, that indeed some 
writers short-cut the treatment stage and produce quality screen¬ 
plays, and that in fact a few have written very well from the outside 
in. But I’m also left to wonder what brilliance they might have 
achieved had they taken greater pains. For the inside-out method is 
a way of working that’s both disciplined and free, designed to 
encourage your finest work. 


You have pursued Story to its final chapter, and, with this step, 
taken your career in a direction many writers fear. Some, dreading 
that awareness of how they do what they do would cripple their 
spontaneity, never study the craft. Instead, they march along in a 
lockstep of unconscious habit, thinking it’s instinct. Their dreams 
of creating unique works of power and wonder are seldom, if ever, 
realized. They put in long, tough days, for no matter how it’s taken, 
the writer’s road is never smooth, and because they have a gift, 
from time to time their efforts draw applause, but in their secret 
selves they know they’re just taking talent for a walk. Such writers 
remind me of the protagonist of a fable my father loved to recite: 

High above the forest floor, a millipede strolled along the branch of 
a tree, her thousand pairs of legs swinging in an easy gait. From 
the tree top, song birds looked down, fascinated by the synchroniza¬ 
tion of the millipede's stride. “That's an amazing talent,” chirped 
the songbirds. “You have more limbs than we can count. How do 
you do it?” And for the first time in her life the millipede thought 
about this. “Yes,” she wondered, “how do I do what I do?” As she 
turned to look back, her bristling legs suddenly ran into one 
another and tangled like vines of ivy. The songbirds laughed as the 
millipede, in a panic of confusion, twisted herself into a knot and 
fell to the earth below. 

You too may sense this panic. I know that when confronted 
with a rush of insights even the most experienced writer can be 
knocked off stride. Fortunately, my father’s fable had an Act Two: 


FADE OUT 4 419 

On the forest floor, the millipede, realizing that only her pride was 
hurt, slowly , carefully, limb by limb, unraveled herself With 
patience and hard work, she studied and flexed and tested her 
appendages, until she was able to stand and walk. What was once 
instinct became knowledge. She realized she didn’t have to move at 
her old, slow, rote pace. She could amble, strut, prance, even run 
and jump. Then, as never before, she listened to the symphony of 
the songbirds and let music touch her heart. Now in perfect com¬ 
mand of thousands of talented legs, she gathered courage and, with 
a style of her own, danced and danced a dazzling dance that 
astonished all the creatures of her world. 

Write every day, line by line, page by page, hour by hour. Keep 
Story at hand. Use what you learn from it as a guide, until com¬ 
mand of its principles becomes as natural as the talent you were 
born with. Do this despite fear. For above all else, beyond imagina¬ 
tion and skill, what the world asks of you is courage, courage to risk 
rejection, ridicule and failure. As you follow the quest for stories 
told with meaning and beauty, study thoughtfully but write boldly. 
Then, like the hero of the fable, your dance will dazzle the world. 


Accidental Tourist, The, 6, 
Action/Adventure Genre, 
36, 61, 82, 85, 
91-92,107, 216, 
406, 409. See also 
Survival Films 
heroes of, 213 

as artists, 253 
and subtext, 254-55 
Acts, 41. See also Climax; 
Endings; Inciting 
incident; Scenes 
design, 217-22 
design variations, 

false ending, 224-25 
five or more act 
structure, 219-22 
last, climax, kinds of, 

last, final condition, 41, 

Mid-Act Climax, 220 
and pacing, 289-91, 

and progression, 
118-19, 208-16, 

reversal, 217-18, 220, 

rhythm, 225-27 
219-22, 226-32 
three-act story, 218-17, 

Adam's Rib, 223 
Adaptation, 364-70 
first principle of, 367 
Addicted to Love, 125 
Aesthetic emotion, 


After Hours, 47, 52, 359, 

Airplane, 360 
Alice Doesn't Live Here 
Anymore, 198 
Alice in Wonderland, 85 
Alien, 186-89, 22 4 > 4°6 
Aliens, 224, 406 
Alive, 82,124 
All in the Family (TV 
series), 382 
All That Jazz, 85,128 
Allen, Woody, 4,123, 344 
Altman, Robert, 9, 56, 65 
Amadeus, 366-67, 369, 

39 I- 9 2 
Amarcord, 65 
And Justice for All, 126, 

Angel Heart, 94 
Animal Farm, 68, 85 
Animal House, 320, 360 
Animation, 85 
Annie Hall, 125, 256-57, 
362, 366 
Anouilh, Jean, 12 
Antagonism, Principle of, 

contradictory value in, 

design for story 
analysis, 318-33 
negation of the 
negation, 318-19 
Antiplot, 45-47, 64, 66 
change versus stasis, 

coincidence in, 52-53 
ending, 60 
and film budget, 63 
inconsistent realities 
in, 54-57 
invention of, 350 
quasi, 56 
time in, 51-52 
Apocalypse Now, 121 
Arachnophobia, 124 

Arc of the film, 41 
Archer, William, 16 
Archetypal story, 3-4 
Archplot, 45-46, 64-65 
and audience, 62-64 
causality, 52 
closed ending, 47-48 
consistent realities, 

external conflict, 


protagonist, 49-51 
scenes, number of, 210 
time, 51 

Aristotle, 5,11,13,79, 

100,109, no, 186, 
2 i 7 > 338 , 357 - 58 , 

Art Film, 7, 59-61, 63, 

false ending, 225 
and inciting incident, 

Asian filmmaking, 14, 62 
Astaire, Fred/Ginger 
Roger films, 332 

and act design, 217-18 
bond, 141-43 
Elizabethan, 90 
emotional experience 
of, 243-48 

and entertainment as 
ritual, 12 

and gap, 179-80, 

intelligence of, 6-7 
and Obligatory Scene, 

positioning the, 89-90 
principles controlling 
ticity), 186-89 
reaction, 135-36, 


458 ♦ INDEX 

Audience ( cont .) 
shrinking, vis-a-vis 
choice of story 
structure, 62-64 
target, 240 
August, Bille, 50 
Authenticity in film, 

Authorship, 185-89 
Autobiography, 84 
Avant-garde film-making, 

Babe, 137 
Babette’s Feast, 59 
Baby Boom, 126 
Backstory, 183, 231, 
340-41, 348, 350 
Bad el the Beautiful, The, 


Bad Day at Black Rock, 55, 
n 9 

Bad Timing, /sfj, 51-52, 55 
Bambi, 81 
Barry Lyndon, 344 
Barton Fink, 55, 56-57 
Basic Instinct, 97 
Battle of Algiers, 84 
Battleship Potemkin, The, 
20, 46, 68-69, T 3^’ 

Beat, 37-38, 258-59, 270, 

Beckett, Samuel, 54 
Being There, 327 
Ben Hur, 366 
Benchley, Peter, 196, 202 
Bergman, Andrew, 3x9 
Bergman, Ingmar, 4, 9, 
65,72,112, 203, 394 
Betrayal, 352 
Betty Blue, 250 
Big, 46, 55, 81, 330 
Big Wednesday, 84 
Big Sleep, The, 119 
Billy Budd, 257 
Biography, 84, 85,183 
Birds, The, 125 
Black Comedy, 82, 88, 

Black Comedy (Shaffer), 

Black Widow, 229 
Blade Runner, The, 366, 

Blazing Saddles, 64, 93 
Blind Date, 107 
Blocking Characters, 

Blood of the Poet, 47 
Blow Up, 55 
Blue Velvet, 59 
Bob Roberts, 59, 84 
Body Heat, 97 
Bond, James, 103-4,195, 
213, 214, 306 
Bonfire of the Vanities, 

The, 369 

Bostonians, The (James), 

Bram Stoker's Dracula, 


Brazil, 224 

Breakfast Club, The, 136 
Breathless, 65 
Bridge on the River Kwai, 
The (Boulle), 367-68 
Bridges of Madison County, 

Brief Encounter, 46, 97 
Bringing Up Baby, 46, 


Buddy Salvation Plot, 80, 


Budget, and story 
structure, 63-64 
Bugs Bunny, 85,137 
Bull Durham, 85 
Bullets Over Broadway, 


Bunker, Archie, 382 
Bunuel, Luis, 407 
Burke, Kenneth, 1 
Burnett, Hallie and Whit, 

Burroughs, William S., 54 

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 
The, 46, 93 
California scenes, 336 
Cameron, James, 406 
Camp Nowhere, 360 
Cape Fear, 408 
Caper Genre, 82 
Carnal Knowledge, 193, 
196, 337 . 338 
Carpenter, John, 43-44 
Casablanca, 20, 201, 223, 
228, 229,260-70, 
287, 288-89, 306, 

3 IO > 333 - 342 - 43 - 353 - 
371-72, 375, 377, 
Casino, 128 
Cassavetes, John, 9 
Cast design, 183-85, 

size of, 213, 214 
Cavani, Liliana, 348-49 
Center of Good, 347-49, 

378 - 79 

Chaplin, Charlie, 4 
Character. See also 
arc, 104-5 
backstory, 183 
biography of, 84, 85, 


cast design, 183-85, 

379- 81 

climax and, 107-6 
comic, 381-83 
and contradiction, 

dimension, 378-80 
first step in creating, 

and the gap, 147-49, 

revelation, 103-4 
and risk/maturity, 
screenplay of 

Chinatown, 154-76, 

structure and character 
functions, 105-7 
three levels of conflict, 

three tips for writing, 


true, 101, 375-77 
versus characterization, 
world of, 145-47 
“Character as destiny,” 52 
Character-driven story, 


Chariots of Fire, 85 
Chase sequence, 366 
Chayefsky, Paddy, 118, 


Cheap Surprise, 354, 355 
Chekhov, Anton, 386 

INDEX + 459 

Chien Andalou, Un, 47 
Chinatown, 55, 56, 97, 98, 
178, 201, 228, 
236-37, 239, 240, 
241, 256, 296, 301, 
331-32, 336, 341, 351, 
371, 406 
Choose Me, 358 
Christie, Agatha, 350 
Chungking Express, 47 
Citizen Kane, 46, 359-60 
Claire’s Knee, 47 
Classical Design, 44-46, 

and audience, 62-64 
and writer's craft, 

Clean and Sober, 126 
Cliche, 7, 67-68 
action genre, 61 
and Hollywood films, 

and multiplication of 
act climaxes, 221 
overcoming, 76-78 
and scenes leading to 
climax, 293-94 
and thriller, 87 
transition, 301 
Climax, 42, 220-22, 
309-12. See also 
Acts; Controlling 
Idea; Endings 
and character, 107-6 
difficulty of writing, 

and irony, 128-29 
last act, 42, 206 
Mid-Act Climax, 220 
and mystery, 350-51 
Penultimate, 224-25 
positive/negative, 304 
and reversal, 42, 309 
rhythm and tempo, 

and self-recognition, 


Sequence Climax, 234 
and Turning Point, 
286-87, 304-5, 

Clouzot, Henri-Georges, 
Clowns, 47 

Cocktail Party, The (Eliot), 

Cocteau, Jean, 177 
Cohn, Harry, 409 
Coincidence, 356-59 
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, 

Columbo (TV series), 117, 

comic character, 


design, 361-62 
genre, 19-20, 82, 
87-88, 247 
hybrids (Dramedy, 
Crimedy), 362 
problem of, 359-62 
Coming Home, 328 
Commercial films, bad 
script, 23, 24 

pacing, 289-91, 294 
rhythm and tempo, 

third thing, 301 
transition, 301 
unity and variety, 

Computer Generated 
Images (CGI), 


Conflict, Law of, 210-13. 
See also Antagonism, 
Principle of 
complication through 
complexity, 213-15 
conflict at three levels, 

and scene analysis, 

261, 268 

Controlling Idea, 112, 

and climax, last act, 
119-21. See also 

components of, 115-16 
in creative process, 

and The Deer Hunter, 

ironic, 125-28 

and Kiss of the Spider 
Woman, 231 
and society, 129-31 
and subplot, 219-22, 

versus counter idea, 

Conversation, The, 12, 87, 

Cook, the Thief, His Wife e[ 
Her Lover, The, 220 
Cool Hand Luke, 81 
Cop, 94 

Courtroom Drama, 82, 

84.181, 229 
Creative choices, 76-78 
Creative limitation, 


Crichton, Charles, 87 
Cries and Whispers, 72 
Crime and Punishment, 71, 
3 2 3 

Crimes and Misdemeanors, 

Crime Story, 82, 86, 87,, 

Crimedy, 362 
Crisis, 303-4, 309 
decision, 304, 308 
design of, 307-9 
placement, 306-7 
Creative limitation, 71-72 
Crying Game, The, 20, 55, 
56, 96,194,196 

Dance with a Stranger, 124 
Dances with Wolves, 93 
Dangerous Liaisons, 3, 59, 
83, 96,116,117, 311, 

David and Lisa, 94 
Dead Ringers, 94 
Death by Hanging, 47 
Death in Venice, 207 
Death Wish, 130 
Deer Hunter, The, 126, 
296-97, 308 
Detective Genre, 82 
on TV, 320-21 
Diabolique, 402-4, 413 
Dialogue, 388-90 
description, 394-400 
image systems, 

460 4 INDEX 

Dialogue ( cont .) 
short speeches, 


silent screenplay, 


suspense sentence, 393 
when to begin writing, 

Dickens, Charles, 98 
Didacticism, 121-23 
Die Hard, 3, 36, 92,119 
Diner, 136, 228 
Dirty Dozen, The, 136 
Dirty Harry, 116-17 
Disaster/Survival Film, 


Discreet Charm of the 
Bourgeoisie, 57, 58, 

Disillusionment Plot, 80, 
81, 84, 85, 86, 87, 


Do the Right Thing, 50, 59, 
136, 228 
Doctor, The, 126 
Docu-Drama, 84 
Documentaries, 47 
Domestic Drama, 74, 82, 
214, 356, 409 
Dominick and Eugene, 189 
Dona Flor and Her Two 
Husbands, 46, 251 
Dr. Strangelove, 55, 71, 

Dracula, 324 
Dramedy, 362 
Dream Sequence, 343 
Drugstore Cowboy, 59, 81 
DuBois, Blanche, 137-38 

Earthquake, 125 
Eat Drink Man Woman, 
20, 50,136, 228 
Eco-Drama, 82 
Education Plot, 36, 80, 

81, 85,107,116,178, 

8 1/2, 20, 47, 55, 65 
Eisenstein, Sergei, 369, 

Electric Horseman, The, 

Elephant Man, The, 125 
Elephant Walk, 358 
Eliot, T.S., 133, 365 

Empire Strikes Back, The, 
236, 239, 241, 305, 

Endings. See also Acts; 

climax and character, 
107-9, 3 IQ 
closed versus open, 

deus ex machina, 

357-58, 361 

down-ending films, 311 
false, 224-25 
idealistic, 123 
ironic, 125-28 
keys to, 310, 312 
Obligatory Scene, 

pessimistic, 124-25 
placement of crisis and 
climax at, 306-7 
reversal, 217-18, 220, 

English Patient, The, 61, 


Equus, 94 

Espionage Drama, 82 
Esquivel, Laura, 4 
E.T., 42, 224 
Ethics (Aristotle), 11 
European filmmaking, 14, 
59-60, 204 

European screenwriting, 
education, 16-17 
European Script Fund, 

Everybody Says I Love You, 


Evita, 85 

Exposition, 328-29 
California scenes, 336 
pace, 336 

information, 336 

Fabulous Baker Boys, The, 

55 - 56 

Faces, 57, 58 
Falling Down, 81 
Falling in Love, 96 
False Mystery, 354-55 
Fantasy Genre, 53-54, 70, 
85 -355 

Farce, 64, 82, 85,107, 


Farewell My Concubine, 


Farewell, My Lovely, 119 
Faulkner, William, 375 
Feiffer, Jules, 193 
Fellini, Federico, 65 
Fields, Verna, 203 
Fifth Element, The, 61 
Film Noir, 82, 84 
First Blood, 103 
First Deadly Sin, The, 94, 

First Deadly Sin, The 
(Sanders), 230 
Fish Called Wanda, A, 20, 
46, 55,72, 88, 360, 
361-62, 383 
Fisher King, The, 59, 92, 

Fitzcarraldo, 81,124 
Five Easy Pieces, 47, 55, 56 
Flashback, 341-42, 352 
Flaubert, Gustave, 369 
Flight of the Phoenix, 124 
Foote, Horton, 9, 32, 44, 

Forced Entry, 94 
Ford, Harrison, 92 
Ford, John, 407 
Foreman, Carl, 368 
Foreshadowing, 200 
Forman, Milos, 369, 396 
Forrest Gump, 25, 81 
Forster, E. M., 369 
400 Blows, The, 129 
Four Weddings and a 
Funeral, 46, 220 
Fowler, Gene, 108 
French Scenes, 292-93 
Friedman, Norman, 80 
Frost, Robert, 90 
Frye, Christopher, 365 
Fugitive, The, 36, 49-50, 
119, 220, 290 
Full Metal Jacket, 122 

Gallipoli, 121 
Gallo, George, 92 
Gandhi, 84 
Gangster Genre, 82 

Casablanca, 270-71 
and character 

INDEX * 461 

Chinatown , 154-76 
and comedy, 362 
creating within, 177-79 
and energy of story, 

Love Serenade, 311-12 
and point of no return, 

and audience 

expectations, 89-90 
conventions, 87-89, 


creative limitations, 
history, 79 

lists and film examples, 

mastery of, 89-90 
mixing and 

reinventing, 92-98 
and setting, 183 
and Shakespeare, 90 
shift in, 225 
Ghost, 96 
Ghostbusters, 12 
Glengarry Glen Ross, 72 
Glory, 83, 309 
Godard, Jean-Luc, 54, 65 
Godfather, The, 348 
Godfather, The: Part II, 

46, 207, 311 

Goethe, von, Johann, 79 
Going in Style, 126 
Gold Rush, The, 361 
Goldman, William, 310 
Good Son, The, 94 
Graduate, The, 95 
Grand Canyon, 126 
Grand Hotel, 50,137 
Grand Illusion, 46 
Great Gatsby, The, 81 
Great Train Robbery, The, 

Greed, 20, 46, 81,109, 312 
Griffith, D. W., 293, 366, 

Gross Pointe Blank, 81 
Groundhog Day, 3,116,117 
Guest, Judith, 205 

Hamburger Hill, 121 
Hamlet (character of), 

105, hi, 378 

Hampton, Christopher, 83 

Hand That Rocks the 
Cradle, The, 94 
Hannah and Her Sisters, 
17,123,126,136, 344 
Harold and Maud, 81 
Hart, Moss, 352 
Heidegger, Martin, 211 
Hemingway, Ernest, 98, 

High Adventure Genre, 
82, 85 

High Hopes, 137 
His Girl Friday, 360 
Historical Drama, 83 
Hitchcock, Alfred, 88-89, 
225, 394, 407 
Holes, 370-72 
Hollywood films, 3 
“big hook,” 198 
budget, 63-64 
and cliches, 61 
and inciting incident, 

number distributed per 
year, 13' 

rebellion against, 66 
script development, 
cost, 13-14 
story analyst, 17-18 
story submissions 
accepted yearly, 13 
studio system, 17 
versus art film, 59-61 
Hope and Glory, 136 
Horror Film, 80, 213,406 
and Cheap Surprise, 


Supernatural, 80 
Super-Uncanny, 80 
Uncanny, 80 
Hospital, 257 
Hour of the Wolf, 80 
Hurd, Gail Anne, 406 
Hurricane, 358 
Husbands, 57 
Husbands and Wives, 96, 

Husserl, Edmund, 66 
Hustler, The, 46, 55, 81 

I Never Promised You a 
Rose Garden, 93-94 

I Vitioni, 65 

Idea. See Controlling Idea 

II Postino, 59, 81 

Image Systems, 

Imaginary Invalid, The 
(Moliere), 382 
In-Laws, The, 313 
In the Heat of the Night, 

In the Realm of the Senses, 

47 > 55 - 307 

Inciting Incident, 181, 
189-94, 208, 311, 

and act design, 217-24 
creating, 206-7 
design of, 198-200 
and flashback, 341 
locating, 200-204 
and Marx Brothers 
film, 361 
quality of, 204-7 
Inner monologues, 177 
Interview with a Vampire, 

Intolerance, 50 
Irony, 128-29 
dramatic, 351-55 
in endings/climax, 

ironic ascension, 
negative, 128,129 
Isadora, 84 

James, Henry, 206, 369 
Jaws, 112,124,190-91, 
202-203, 288, 303, 
356-57, 409 
Jerry Maguire, 126 
Jesus of Montreal, 225 
JFK, 59, 345 
Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer, 

John and Mary, 76 
Joy Luck Club, The, 222 
Joyce, James, 54 
Ju Dou, 46 
Jurassic Park, 358 

Kasdan, Lawrence, 92 
Kaufman, Phillip, 352 
Key Images, 312 
Kid, The, 312 
King Lear (Shakespeare), 

462 4 INDEX 

Kiss of the Spider Woman, 
107-8, 231-32 
Kiss of the Spider Woman 
(Puig), 231 
Koyaanisqutsi, 47 
Kramer vs. Kramer, 112, 
125,126,198, 202, 
206, 215-16, 221, 
236, 288,307-8, 

Kubrick, Stanley, 122 

La Dolce Vita, 87,129, 

La Notte, 198 
La Promesse, 81 
La Strada, 65 
Lady Eve, The, 360 
Last Days of Pompeii, The, 

Last Emperor, The, 337, 


Last Seduction, The, cyj 
Last Year at Marienbad, 
47, 57, 63, 68 
Law of Diminishing 
Returns, 244, 293, 

Lawson, John Howard, 16 
Le Feu Follet, 81 
League of Their Own, A, 85 
Lean, David, 368 
Leaving Las Vegas, 3,96, 
198, 222, 307 
L’Eclisse, 81 
Lenny, 87 
Les Diabolique. See 

Lethal Weapon, 94,362 
Life Story, 31-32 
Like Water for Chocolate, 4 
Limitation of story, 71 
Lion King, The, 3, 85 
Little Big Man, 337, 338 
Little Mermaid, The, 85 
Little Shop of Horrors, 361 
Lone Star, 96, 294 
Loneliness of the Long 
Distance Runner, 

The, 85 

Longing Story, 96 
Looks and Smiles, 408 
Lord Jim, 81 
Lost Highway, 47 
Love Serenade, 311-12 

Love Story, 80, 84, 85, 86, 
92, 95-98,114,116, 
178, 214, 226, 229, 
289, 310, 352 
Loved One, The, 88 
Lumet, Sidney, 292 

M, 46, 55 

Macbeth (Shakespeare), 

81,142-43, 378 
Maltese Falcon, The, 87 
Mamet, David, 72 
Man Bites Dog, 20, 59, 84 
Man Who Would Be King, 
The, 55, 82 

Manchurian Candidate, 
The, 325 
Manhattan, 125 
Manhunter, 94 
Mark, The, 94 
Marty, 46, 55 
Marvin, Lee, 385 
Marx Brothers films, 361 
Masculine Feminine, 57, 58 
M*A*S*H, 360 
Maturation Plot, 81, 85, 

McQuarrie, Christopher, 

Mean Streets, 80 
Medical Drama, 82,181 
Melodrama, 370 
Men in Black, 25, 295 
Mephisto, 81, 326 
Merrily We Roll Along 
(Kaufman & Hart), 

Meshes of the Afternoon, 

47 > 55 

Metamorphosis (Kafka), 
Metz, 80 

Michael Collins, 83 
Midnight Cowboy, 189 
Midnight Run, 92 
Midsummer's Night Dream, 
A (Shakespeare), 137, 

Mike’s Murder, 90 
Mind Worm, 374-75 
minimalism. See miniplot 
miniplot, 45-47, 64-65, 

change versus stasis, 


and film budget, 63 
inconsistent realities, 

internal conflict, 49 
multiplot variation, 49, 

negative ending, 59 
open ending, 48, 57 
protagonist, 49-51 
and reversals, 222-24 
Misanthrope, The 
(Moliere), 382 
Miser, The (Moliere), 382 
Misfits, The, 87 
Miss Julie (Strindberg), 

Missing, 116,117, 321, 396 
Moby Dick, 195 
Mockumentary, 56, 84 
Modern Epic, 81, 84, 85 
Modem Times, 20 
Mogamo, 409 
Moliere, 98, 382 
Moment by Moment, 408 
Montage, 343-44 
Monty Python and the 
Holy Grail, 19, 47, 

57- 64 

Moonstruck, 197 
Morning After, The, 94 
Moulin Rouge, 299-300 
Mr. Smith Goes to 
Washington, 81 
Mrs. Parker and the 
Vicious Circle, 81 
Mrs. Soffel, 95-96, 

T 93 ~ 94 ’ I 9 &> 22 & 
Multiplot, 49, 56,123-24, 
226-32, 406 
Murder Mystery, 82, 97, 

Muriel’s Wedding, 81 
Mumau, F. W., 407 
Music Room, The, 47,198 
Musical, 84, 289 
Musical Horror Film, 

My Best Friend’s Wedding, 
81, 409 

My Dinner with Andre, 68, 

My Favorite Season, 356 
My Man Godfrey, 362 
Mystery, 349-51 
and backstory, 350 

INDEX + 463 

diffhanger, 355 
dosed, 350 
false, 354-55 
open, 350 

and red herrings, 350 

Naked, 57, 58 
Naked Gun, 360 
Naked Lunch, 214 
Nanook of the North, 47 
Nash, Richard, 35 
Nashville, 55, 56,128,137 
Nasty Habits, 360 
Network, 128, 360 
Newspaper Drama, 82 
Night and Fog, 47 
Night at the Opera, 360 
Nightporter, The, 348-49 
1984, 81 
Nixon, 84,128 
North Dallas Forty, 85, 


O’Bannon, Dan, 187-89 
Objective correlative, 66 
Obligatory Scene, 

198-200, 303, 308 
Officer and a Gentleman, 
An, 126 

Oh! What a Lovely War, 

Old Man and the Sea, The, 

On the Waterfront, 201 
Ordinary People, 6,126, 
189, 204-5, 295-96, 
309, 323 

Othello, 226, 298-99 
Out of Africa, 126,127 
Outbreak, 340 

Pacing, 289-91, 294 
Paisan, 47 

Paper Chase, The, 126 
Parenthood, 3, 20, 49,136, 

Paris, Texas, 47,48, 55 
Parody, 82 
Pascal, Blaise, 5 
Pascali’s Island, 329 
Passion de Jeanne D’Arc, 
La, 47 

Passion Fish, 80 
Pat and Mike, 198 
Paths of Glory, 122 

Pelle the Conqueror, 47, 

50,136, 369 

People vs. Larry Flint, The, 

Persona, 20, 47, 65,112, 

Personal story, bad script, 
22-23, 2 4 

Phantom of Liberty, 58 
Piano, The, 408 
Pitch, 413-14 
Plato, 129,130 
Player, The, 13 
Plot, 43. See also Archplot; 
Antiplot; Climax, 
Crisis; Inciting 
Incident; Miniplot; 
Structure; Subplot 
Poetics, The (Aristotle), 5, 

Point of View (POV) 
character’s, 363-64 
shots, 362-63 
“Pointless pace killer,” 


Points of no return, 

Police Academy, 360 
Political Drama/Allegory, 
82, 85, 229, 289, 310 
Political Thriller, 116 

of story design, 58-66 
of story's world, 182 
Polti, 79-80 
Poseidon Adventure, The, 
Posse, 93 

Postcards from the Edge, 3, 

Postman Always Rings 
Twice, The, 358 
Premise, 112-13 
Prison Drama, 82 
Prizzi’s Honor, 88, 360 
Producers, The, 360 
Progression, 118-23, 2 °9 
complication versus 
complexity, 213-16 
ironic, 298-300 
law of conflict, 210-13, 
261, 268 

personal, 295-96 
points of no return, 

social, 294-95 
symbolic ascension, 

Protagonist, 136-41. See 
also Character 
and audience bond, 

and gap, 147-49, 

and inciting incident, 



i 3 <S -37 

Plural, 136 
and quest, 196-97 
screenplay of 

Chinatown, 154-76, 

single versus multiple, 

and spine of story, 

switch during story, 137 
Private Benjamin, 360 
Psycho, 137, 225 
Psycho-Drama, 82, 92, 

93 - 95 

Psycho-Thriller, 75, 

94- 95,114, 230 
Puig, Manuel, 231 
Pulp Fiction, 50,136 
Punitive Plot, 81, 84, 85, 


Puzo, Mario, 312 

Q^A, 59, 97,119 
Quartet, 369 
Quest, 196-97 
Quest for Fire, 124 
Quiz Show, 126 

Raging Bull, 85 
Raiders of the Lost Ark, 19, 
92, 220 
Rain, 300 
Rain Man, 126 
Rainmaker, The, 34-35 
Rambo, 103 
Rashomon, 20 
Ray, Satyajit, 4 
Red, 96 

Red Desert, The, 12,47, 55, 

464 ♦ INDEX 

Redemption Plot, 80, 81, 
85, 92,107,126 
Redford, Robert, 205 
Regarding Henry, 126 
Reiner, Rob, 56 
Remains of the Day, 36, 


Research, 72-76 
and birth of characters, 

fact, 73-74 
imagination, 73 
memory, 72-73 
and progressive 
complications, 213 
Reservoir Dogs, 20, 342 
Resnais, Alain, 47 
Resolution, 312-14 
Return of the Jedi, 236, 341 
Revenge Tale, 82 
Reversal, 217-18, 220, 

Reversal of Fortune, 3, 20, 


Rhys, Jean, 369 
Rhythm, 291-93 
Risky Business, 81 
River Runs Through It, A, 

River, The, 191 
Road to Morocco, 64 
Road Warrior, The, 49 
Robbe-Grillet, Alain, 63 
Robocop, 119 
Rocky, 201-2, 223, 229 
Rocky IV, 402 
Roma, 84 

Romantic Comedy, 82, 

Romy and Michele’s High 
School Reunion, 80 
Room With a View, A 
(Forster), 369 
Rose, The, 128 
Rosemary's Baby, 324 
Rossen, Robert, 257 
Rowe, Kenneth, 16 
Ruling Class, The, 360 
Running, Jumping, and 
Standing Still Film, 
The, 47 

Running on Empty, 59 
Ruthless People, 299 

Sacrifice, The, 47 

Salt, Waldo, 189 
Salvador, 59 
Sanders, Lawrence, 230 
Sargent, Alvin, 189, 205 
Sartre, Jean-Paul, 211, 212 
Satire, 82 

Saturday Night Fever, 81 
Scarlet Letter, The, 369 
Scenes, 35-37. See also 
and beats, 217, 258-59, 
closing value, 259, 270, 

crisis, 303-9 
emotional transitions, 

French Scenes, 292-93 
Law of Diminishing 
Returns, 244, 293 
length of, 291-92 
mood, 247-48 
number of in Archplot, 

number of in three-act 
story, 218-19 
number of in two-hour 
film, 291, 415 
Obligatory, 199-200, 

opening value, 258, 

259, 261, 270, 272, 


"pointless pace killer,” 

Sequence Climax, 234 
Setups/Playoffs, 238-43, 

text and subtext, 


transition/Third Thing, 

Turning Points, 74, 
209, 217, 233-38, 
243, 248-51, 259, 

270- 71, 286-87 
writing, specifics to do, 


Scene analysis, 257-59 
Casablanca, 260-70, 


Through a Glass Darkly, 

271- 87 

Scent of Green Papaya, 
The, 56 

Science Fiction, 85 
Schiller, von, Johann, 79 
Schindler’s List, 81,126 
Schrader, Leonard, 


Scott of the Antarctic, 125 
Screwball Comedy, 82 
Sea of Love, 120, 229 
Sequence, 38. See also act 
three scene example, 
Serpico, 189 

Setting, 68-72,181-85, 

and creative limitation, 

duration, 68 
and genre, 183 
level of conflict, 69 
location, 69 
and mood, 247-48 
period, 68 
place, 69 
politics of setting 
world, 182 

rituals of setting world, 

values of setting world, 

versus story, 72 
Setups/Playoffs, 238-43, 

Seven, 94, 97,119 
Seven Samurai, The, 46, 
55 . 56 ,136 

Seventh Seal, The, 46, 312 
Shaffer, Peter, 369, 
391-92, 393 

Shakespeare, William, 90, 
95 - 365,369- 407 
filmed works, 366 
five act structure, 

Shall We Dance, 47, 81 
Sheltering Sky, The, 400 
Shine, 12,46,120, 220, 

Shining, The, 80 
Ship of Fools, 50 
Shortcuts, 50, 57, 58,137, 
227, 228 

Shot in the Dark, A, 

Silence of the Lambs, The, 

n 9 > 349 

INDEX « 465 

Silence, The, 65, 393-94 
Silent Era of film, 366 
Single White Female, 94 
Sitcom, 82 
Six Guns and Society 
(Wright), 81 
Sleeping with the Enemy, 

Sleepless in Seattle, 96 
Slice-of-life works, 58 
Sling Blade, 312 
Snake Pit, The, 93 
Snow White and the Three 
Stooges, 129 

Soap Opera, 213, 214, 216 
Social Drama, 82, 84-85, 
Solaris, 85 

Somebody Up There Likes 
Me, 85 

Somewhere in Time, 85 
Sound of Music, The, 400 
Spartacus, 81 
Speed, 119, 222 
Spielberg, Steven, 202-3 
Spine (through- 

line / super obj ective) 
of story, 194-96, 338 
Sports Genre, 85, 201, 


Stand by Me, 81 
Stanislavski, Konstantin, 
Star ‘80 ,128 
Star Wars, 85, 256, 305, 

Steel Magnolias, 314 
Step-outline, 412-15 
expansion of, 415 
Stereotypical story, 4-5 
Stolen Children, 47 
Stone, Oliver, 345 
Storm Over Asia, 366 
Story event, 33-35, 37. See 
also scene 
Story values, 34 
Storytelling, 113 
Stranger Than Paradise, 


Strangers in Paradise, 359 
Strangers When We Meet, 

Straw Dogs, 36 
Stream of Consciousness 
work, 213, 214, 216 

Streetcar Named Desire, A, 
137-38, 324 

Strindberg, August, 54, 

Stripes, 360 

Structure of story, 32-33. 
See also Acts; 
Character; Climax; 
Endings; Inciting 

active versus passive 
protagonist, 50-51 
Archplot, Miniplot, 
Antiplot, 43-47 
causality versus 
coincidence, 52-53 
change versus stasis, 

57 - 58 

and character 
functions, 105-7 
classical design, 

44-46, 52 
closed versus open 
endings, 47-49 
consistent versus 
realities, 53-57 
creative limitation, 

design, five-part, 


external versus internal 
conflict, 48-49 
and film budget, 63-64 
and genre, 86-89, 

linear versus nonlinear 
time, 51-52 
nonplot, 58, 60 
“pointless pace killer,” 

politics of story design, 

58- 66 

quest theme, 196-97 
as rhetoric, 113-14 
setting, 68-72,181-85 
single versus multiple 
protagonists, 49-50 
219-22, 226-32 
Sturges, Preston, 9 
Style, adding vividness to, 

Subplot, 219-22, 226-32 
and resolution, 312-14 

Sudden Impact, 119 
Sullivan's Travels, 201, 
239-40, 241, 301 
Sunrise, 366 

Sunset Boulevard, 84, 352 
Superman, 318 
Surprise, 355-56 
Cheap, 354, 355 
Survival Films, 124,125 
Suspense sentence, 393 
Suspense story, 351 
Sweet Smell of Success, 

The, 326 

Swimmer, The, 227-28 
Sword in the Stone, The, 85 
Sybil, 93 

Tarantino, Quentin, 342 
Tarkovsky, Andrei, 85 
Taxi Driver, 201 
Technical advances in 
film, and story, 


Tempo, 293-94 

Tenant, The, 80, 326 
Tender Mercies, 19, 32, 43, 
44, 47, 55, 81,197, 
199-200, 290, 303 
Terminator, 20, 224-25, 
297-98, 372, 379, 


Terms of Endearment, 126, 

Testament, 408 
Testing Plot, 81, 85 
Text and subtext, 252-57 
That Obscure Object of 
Desire, 4TJ, 55 
Thelma el Louise, 46, 55, 
136, 306, 308 
They Shoot Horses, Don’t 
They?, 128 
Third Thing, 301 
This is Spinal Tap, 3, 84, 

Thoreau, Henry David, 

Three Faces of Eve, The, 


3 Women, 55, 56 
Thriller Genre, 82, 87, 

178, 226, 229, 247, 

353-54, 355- 407- See 

also Psycho-Thriller 

466 « INDEX 

Through a Glass Darkly, 

50, 203, 271-86, 


Tightrope, 94 
Titles, 408-9 
poor, 90 
To Die For, 84 
Toller, Ernst, 54 
Tootsie, 126, 300 
Top Hat, 46, 55 
Total Recall, 85 
Towne, Robert, 154 
screenplay of 

Chinatown, 154-76 
Trading Placets, 234, 235, 

Trainspotting, 6 
Trans-Europ-Express, 57 
Treasure of the Sierra 
Madre, The, 81, 312 
Treatment, 413-16 
Truffaut, Francois, 9,312 
Turning Points, 74, 209, 
217, 233-37 

and backstory, 346, 341 
and characters’ choices, 

and climax, 311-12 
and comedy, 362 
and emotional 

transitions, 243-48 
and flashback, 341 
and problem of 
interest, 346 
and question of self- 
expression, .237-38 
scene analysis, 270-71, 

Twelve Angry Men, 292 
Twenty Bucks, 227 
2001: A Space Odyssey, 46 

Ulysses (Joyce), 367 
Umberto D, 57, 58 

Un Chien Andalou, 64 
Unbearable Lightness of 
Being, The, 358 
Unforgiven, 20, 83, 93 
Unmarried Woman, An, 
126, 206-7 

Usual Suspects, The, 70, 

35 1 

Verdict, The, 104, 222, 


Vertigo, 20,119, 225 
Viridiana, 407 
Viva Zapata!, 81 
Voice-over narration, 

Von Stroheim, Erich, 


Wall Street, 81,128, 234, 
235, 325 

War and Peace, 71 
War and Peace (Tolstoy), 

War Genre, 81 
War of the Roses, The, 88, 
125,128, 311 
Watership Down, 68 
Wayne’s World, 47, 55, 64 
Wedding, A, 137 
Weekend, 47, 54, 55, 64, 

65 . 359 
Welfare, 47 
West Side Story, 85 
Western Genre; 81, 86, 

93,192, 407 
Wild Strawberries, 47 ■ 
When Harry Met Sally, 55, 
56, 96, 360 

Whispers in the Dark, 94 
White Men Can’t Jump, 85 
Who Framed Roger Rabbit, 
20, 53-54 

Wild Strawberries, 343 

Winter Light, 55, 81 
Witches of Eastwick, The, 

Witness, 95, 226 
Wizard of Oz, The, 70, 
129, 223-24 
Woman’s Film, 82 
Woolf, Virginia, 54 
Wright, Will, 81 
Writers Guild of America, 
script registration 
service, 15 
Writing for film 
authorship, 185-89 
believing in what you 
write, 65-66 
earning a living, 


endurance, 98-99 
from the inside out, 
152-76, 412-17 
from the outside in, 

mastering classical 
form, 64-65 
and Mind Worm, 374 
as poet, 400-408 
and risk/maturity, 

screenplay length, 415 
step outline, 412-15 
style, tips on, 395-97 
treatment, 406-8 

Yeats, William Butler, 13 
Yellow Submarine, The, 85 
Young Frankenstein, 360 
Young Mr. Lincoln, 84 

Zed el Two Noughts, A, 47, 


Zedung, Mao, 406 
Zelig, 84 

Zero de Conduite, 47